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  • Restoration and Slavery: Two New Exhibits
  • Susan Kern (bio)
The Mere Distinction of Colour
exhibition installed 2017, James Madison’s Montpelier, Montpelier Station, Virginia.
The Life of Sally Hemings
exhibition installed 2019, Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia.

Like other museums, the Virginia plantation sites that were home to America’s founders are grappling with how to present the history of those revered figures in concert with the history of slavery on their sites. These places, often called house museums, are now more often called what they are, in fact: plantation museums. As we try to tell a more complete history, research and historic preservation have turned their attention from the houses and elite lifestyles of the presidents to archaeology and restoration work on entire plantations. This allows the interpretation of the lives of enslaved people through dwellings, work sites, storage buildings, and agricultural practices, understanding these spaces as the apparatus of complex social and economic engines. We no longer talk about the founders as sole authors of these places but try to understand how slavery enabled and affected their identities and achievements. If their lives depended on enslaved African Americans, then American history— our lives— do too.

The active interpretation of slavery has been part of Virginia’s historic sites since 1979, when Colonial Williamsburg committed to a division of African American interpretation and development of sites for telling those stories. Despite a more reluctant start, other sites, including Mount Vernon, Monticello, Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Montpelier, and James Monroe’s Highland developed robust agendas for archaeological and architectural research, site interpretation, and oral history and engagement projects with descendant communities. Additionally, these sites are profoundly aware of how much the museum-going public needs background content about slavery, the slave trade, and methods of research, and have dedicated scholarly and educational programs and websites that expand museum offerings. This essay reviews recent projects to restore historic spaces and interpret slavery at Monticello and Montpelier. For both of these museums, the imperatives of building research and restoration coincided with the obligation to research and interpret slavery. Thus, questions of household and agricultural labor, interactions between white owners and black enslaved people, and slave life drove research questions and restoration decisions.1 When the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF), founded as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923, opened Monticello to the public in 1924, the restoration itself and the storyline of tours was about Jefferson and his vision for building and altering his neoclassical home between 1770 and his death in 1826. The first decade of restoration focused on the house and the north and south terrace wings. Later twentieth-century work restored gardens and landscape and began the excavation of Mulberry Row, the location of work and life for some of Monticello’s enslaved population.2 Beginning in 2014, TJF’s Mountaintop Project gave new attention to restoring rooms in the house in order to interpret the lives of Jefferson’s wife, daughters, and other family members, as well as the work of enslaved people there. TJF revisited and revised the restoration of the north and south terrace wings, which enabled the new exhibit, The Life of Sally Hemings.

The Mountaintop Project is also continuing the examination of Mulberry Row. TJF has restored an 1809 stone stable and a circa 1778 stone textile workshop and reconstructed two log buildings, a house to interpret the story of John and Priscilla Hemmings, and a storehouse for iron, which was both workshop and living quarters for men who performed tin and iron work. Signage indicates new research on other parts of Mulberry Row and plans for a “contemplative place” to “honor and recognize” the African Americans who lived in slavery at Monticello. In addition to signage, a free app, Slavery at Monticello: Life and Work on Mulberry Row, offers additional content to visitors who want to know more about slavery or the plantation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has owned and operated Montpelier since 1984. Between 2004 and 2009, they performed major architectural investigation and restoration of the house, during which they stripped away the early twentieth-century Du-Pont family alterations and recast the house as the early federal-period home of James...


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