Thomas Jefferson: Dealing with the Tough Stuff

While studying as a undergraduate, I knew I loved the American Revolution. I loved the
individuals, the ideas, the atmosphere…everything! As seniors, everyone had to take a class where they wrote one huge research paper and I started with one idea, directly related to previous research I had completed and as I dug into Thomas Jefferson, I couldn’t pull myself away. I shifted gears and focused on this amazingly, enigmatic individual. When I read his words, I felt them. I celebrated his successes and could mourn his losses. I continued on this Jefferson binge and wrote my entire MA thesis on

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I took more pictures with this statue at the welcome center than I would like to admit.

his philosophy for education.

Now, although I would drop my entire life to follow a reincarnated Jefferson on whatever pursuits he decided, I recognize his faults. When I finally had to opportunity to travel to Monticello in 2012 I soaked up every inch of his awesomeness, but I was fully aware of his life as a southern planter. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. He also had a long relationship with one slave, Sally Hemings, fathering several children with her.

I can’t remember how well the docent at Monticello addressed issues of slavery. I knew the facts, so I was far more wrapped up in looking at everything I could. Furthermore, I was not yet in the public history field, so I wasn’t as attuned to its issues. I know, however, that in recent years, Monticello has come a long way in addressing some of these tougher items. In a recent article in theĀ Richmond Times I discovered that one of Jefferson and Hemings’s descendants has recently been hired as their community engagement officer. According to the article, Gayle Jessup White will work to help bring the stories of Jefferson and, importantly, his slaves “off the mountain.”

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It is important for museums, particularly historic sites whose residents have been enshrined for one reason or another, to acknowledge that not all pieces of their site’s history may be comfortable. It may be painful. It may be scary on some level, but only by acknowledging it, learning about it, and accepting it as part of OUR story as human beings, are we able to make meaningful connections with all audiences. That is the only way we can overcome some of these experiences and strive to make positive changes for the future.

 

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Keeping History Alive through Trades

Today I read an article about one of the last three traditional thatchers in Wales. Now, thatching, as you may or may not know, is the process of creating a thatched roof, or one made from dried vegetation (traditionally straw in Wales, but today Chinese water reed is taking over). The gentleman who was interviewed was interested in finding new apprentices to keep the trade alive. This wasn’t merely a “Hey, we’re short staffed” kind of call for applicants, but a sincere announcement that when this man retires there will be two traditional thatchers left in Wales and that isn’t going to cut it.

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Roof thatcher Alan Jones courtesy of walesonline.co.uk

The thought that a trade could simply vanish was an interesting one. It speaks to this entire idea of lost knowledge, be it a trade, words that fall out of use, or entire languages that have or are on the verge of dying out.

Public history institutions attempt to protect against this loss, though. For example, my husband and I watched indigo dying at a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina recently. They, however, weren’t using a completely traditional method of work, in part, because traditional indigo dying was actually quite dangerous, or at least smelly, due to the chemicals used in the process. But we could watch a blacksmith, a cooper, and a potter. This same plantation had heritage breeds of animals. Now, I’m not sure the difference between the goats my friend is currently raising and the goats they had onsite, but I trust them.

At the Whaley House we have begun a quilting bee program to not only introduce people to the art of hand quilting, using the English paper piecing method, but also to share the significance of quilting bees for women throughout history. You can find museums and historical societies sharing trades like this across the world. Not only does this work to share historical knowledge, but also to keep these trades alive and connect people with those who came before them. This thatcher could simply adopt modern methods, but he undoubtedly feels a connection to those who proceeded him when he works on a traditionally thatched roof. And that’s what history is about, isn’t it? We are trying to build a connection between the present and the past to absorb the experiences of our ancestors, to learn from them, and to apply those lessons to our lives to build a better future.

The Trouble with Historic House Museums

Historic house museums can be, in my opinion, the most moving museum experience you can have. You literally get to walk through the doors of people who lived long before and did something someone deemed worthy of remembering. The problem, though, is who deemed that memory worth remembering.

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I am an outspoken historic house museum anarchist. If you know what this means, kudos to you and if you don’t, check out this website to learn about the work of Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan. One of the posts noted the politics inherent in preservation. A statement is being made when a house is deemed worthy of saving. And for a long time most historic house museum were the former homes of dead, rich, white guys. And it makes sense; this crew had the power to effect change, had the money to build aesthetically pleasing and architecturally interesting homes, and were recognized in their communities as being noteworthy. But what then, have preservationists left unspoken when advocating to save these homes and not small homes filled with the people who literally built the city. What have they said when they fixated on highlighting the activities of the male homeowner and not the life of the wife or the life of the house staff or slaves? What have they said when they saved another white home because it serves as a special architectural example and not the ethnic neighborhoods that could tell the stories of racism, struggle, survival, immigration and more. Preservation decisions are made consciously, but what they say to a community can, hopefully unconsciously, send messages of exclusion, disinterest, and outright snobbery.

This is not to say that these great houses aren’t important, but those who operate them need to be aware of these feelings. How does your house reflect the residents of your CURRENT neighborhood? What do you do for your neighborhood? Who actually frequents your house and from where does your support come?

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These are questions I’m currently asking about our house museum in Flint. A rich, white guy once lived there and, although I always try to include stories about the women of the house and the house staff, that still isn’t representative of the majority African American population of the city. I am working through plans to reach out to various stakeholders and members of the community to see what we, as a museum, can do for them. What would they come to the museum to do? What services could we provide? These are important questions to ask if we want to be an effective museum in the twenty-fist century.