The making of James Madison’s Montpelier’s “The Mere Distinction of Colour” Q&A: Part 1

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Editor’s Note: Want to know more about what it takes to develop an award-winning exhibition about the lives of enslaved people at a founding father’s historic site? We did, too! In this series, we will learn more about what went into the new permanent exhibition “The Mere Distinction of Colour” (MDOC) at James Madison’s Montpelier (JMM) in Virginia. The exhibition won NCPH’s 2018 Outstanding Public History Project Award and featured collaboration with descendants of slaves who identify with the JMM community. To learn more about the exhibition, be sure to check out the review by Megan Taylor-Shockley, published in the November edition of The Public Historian and provided generously by University of California Press for free for a limited time. Questions for this series were developed by the H@W lead editors as well as lead editor Will Walker’s students at The Cooperstown Graduate Program. JMM staff and MDOC collaborators took the time to provide in-depth, thought-provoking answers. We will publish this conversation as a multi-part series highlighting topics ranging from exhibition development and design to working with descendant communities. This is a new feature that integrates NCPH’s print and digital publications. Let us know what you think! Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Aerial view of James Madison's Montpelier Mansion and Grounds (Photo by Jenn Glass, Courtesy James Madison's Montpelier)

Aerial view of James Madison’s Montpelier Mansion and Grounds Photo credit: Jenn Glass, James Madison’s Montpelier

Part 1: Exhibition Development

H@W Editors: Several presidential historic sites including yours have recently enhanced their interpretation of slavery around the same time we have been having high-profile, national conversations about race in American society. This is an important time to be addressing the history of enslaved people and slavery at historic sites. To start off, can you tell us a little bit about when and how the idea for this exhibition about the experience of slavery at JMM developed?

Christian Cotz, Director of Education & Visitor Engagement, JMM: In November of 2014, Montpelier received news that it would receive a $10M gift from patriotic philanthropist David M. Rubenstein to complete the furnishing of the Madisons’ house, finish the archaeology of the South Yard slave quarter complex, and reconstruct the six buildings that had been there. As we considered furnishing both the big house’s cellar spaces and the South Yard buildings, we decided that we could tell a richer, more meaningful, and more relevant story by installing a modern exhibition (which developed into MDOC) in the spaces, as opposed to furnishing them with kitchens, workspaces, and storerooms (or period room settings). To make this exhibition happen, the unflagging patience and support of the JMM descendant community, and the courage of our CEO, Kat Imhoff, was essential.

H@W Editors: What’s the story behind the exhibition’s name?

Cotz: The title of the exhibit stems from a Madison quotation, “We have seen the mere distinction of colour, made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man, over man.” It was spoken during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, but if you were to remove the attribution and date, it is, sadly, timeless.

H@W Editors: Did any other museums or historic sites provide inspiration for your project?

Cotz: We traveled to a number of different museums and historic sites to survey how the field was addressing the history of slavery. Institutions that made a significant impact on us included:

We also delved into the literature, including works by historian Ed Baptist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Early advice on every level of the project from assistant professor of museum studies at The George Washington University Max van Balgooy was indispensable. We put together a team of advisors that included museum professionals, academics, activists, and descendants such as: Christy Coleman, chief executive director of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, VA; Rex Ellis, associate director of curatorial affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and John Franklin, cultural historian and senior manager in the Office of External Affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. They all provided guidance and enormous amounts of inspiration.

In addition, Frank Vagnone, President and CEO, Old Salem Museums & Gardens and co-author of Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, challenged us to turn expectations upside down.

(Editors’ Note: You can read more about The Anarchist’s Guide in this essay in the May 2015 issue of The Public Historian. You can also read a review of the book from the May 2016 issue of The Public Historian here.)

H@W Editors: It sounds like you strategized and consulted with an array of stakeholders and prospective collaborators. Despite these efforts, was there any opposition to the development or installation of the exhibition by JMM stakeholders or visitors more generally?

Kat Imhoff, CEO, JMM: We made a point to make the creation of MDOC an iterative and thoughtful process in the hopes of avoiding strong opposition to the finished product. Of the utmost importance was to include various stakeholders in the development of the exhibition, because you can’t talk about this history authentically and holistically without incorporating the feedback and points of view of those for whom it is personal. We are lucky to have such an active and committed descendant community to advise us and help make decisions. Their feedback, combined with the guidance of experts in the field, produced what you see today.

H@W Editors: Speaking of what visitors see and experience when they visit Montpelier, can you tell us more about how MDOC might fit into a visitor’s overall experience?

Haley Backlund, Manager of Visitor Services, JMM: When visitors first arrive at JMM, the Visitor Services team help JMM visitors maximize their time on site. The interior of the home is only accessible by guided tour. Therefore, the first thing most visitors do is select the type of house tour they would like to take. MDOC is included in the standard price of admission, so as guests are planning their day, they are encouraged to see it either before or after their house tour, depending on timing. In addition to touring the house and viewing MDOC, while guests are on the property, they can also view the introductory film and exhibits in the David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center, view the Annie DuPont Formal Garden, visit Madison’s Temple, the Madison Family Cemetery and Slave Cemetery, the Archaeology Lab, and the Landmark Forest, and they can hike the trails. My hope is that visitors are taking the time to experience the exhibit so they leave with an understanding that much of what we are seeing in today’s society is due to the legacies of slavery

Editor’s Note: In this MDOC Q&A installment, we learned about the inspiration for MDOC. In the next post, we will delve more deeply into the exhibition’s content and source base.

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