The making of James Madison’s Montpelier’s “The Mere Distinction of Colour” Q&A: Part 5

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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 are publishing 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.

You can find Part 1 of this series here, part 2 herepart 3 here, and part 4 here.

Part 5: exhibition design

H@W Editors: On the MDOC web site, you mention that “One of the biggest critiques from our descendant advisors was that we ‘can’t leave slavery in the past.’” This inspired the creation of a “10-minute video, connecting the history of slavery to many of the racial and cultural issue we still contend with today.” Could you talk a bit about how you developed the video, The Legacies of Slavery, and why you opted to link to the entire video on your web site?

The Legacies of Slavery film exhibit inside The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibition at James Madison's Montpelier (Photo by Proun Design, Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation)

“The Legacies of Slavery” film exhibit inside “The Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibition at James Madison’s Montpelier Photo credit: Proun Design; courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation

Christian Cotz, Director of Education & Visitor Engagement, JMM: The Legacies video was the toughest nut to crack for us. How do you talk about the legacies of slavery in ten minutes? We decided to bring in some other folks who spent a lot more time thinking about this subject than we did. We invited about fifteen people from all over the country to JMM over Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend in 2017. There were academics, artists, activists, museum people, descendants, and more. We spent three days discussing the legacies of slavery. By the end of the weekend, everyone was emotionally and intellectually exhausted, but the Northern Light Productions film crew thought they had a direction they could work with. Over the next few months, NLP gathered the historical images and footage and did on-camera interviews with the four talking heads in the film; nothing was scripted. The haunting opening bars of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” was chosen to open the show, and a spiritual that’s also heard in another exhibition film floats under the historic antebellum images. Discordant piano music lends a feeling of discomfort as poet Regie Gibson carries the film from the Jim Crow era to today. We decided unanimously that nothing else would do to wrap it up but Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful,” which leaves the viewer with a sad, hopeful, yet incomplete resolution. We believe that as historians, educators, designers, and filmmakers, it is our job not only to narrate history but also to help people make connections between the past and the present. The Legacies film connects those dots.

H@W Editors: Some history museums have been incorporating contemporary artwork into their exhibitions. For example, MDOC includes a mosaic by Rebecca Warde called E Pluribus Unum. It depicts an enslaved African American child and is made from bricks that were excavated at Montpelier. What role do you think artwork like this should play in history exhibitions? Can you tell us where the idea for this mosaic came from and the process involved in making it?

Chris Danemayer, Principal, Proun DesignI am a very strong proponent of involving artists in the development of exhibits. Artists can make much more visceral and poignant connections with visitors and bring unique and surprising perspectives. JMM has a very robust archaeology program and the client team expressed a strong desire to artistically display some of their artifacts. After exploring several options that were deemed too expensive or too risky for fragile artifacts, JMM archaeologist Matt Reeves suggested using brick sherds. They were plentiful and not precious. I recalled a story about a brick they found on site that had the impression of small fingers in it, evidence that even children were put to work in service of the Madisons and the idea of making a mosaic portrait came to mind.

"E Pluribus Unum," by Rebecca Warde. Mosaic created from pieces of brick excavated at living quarters of enslaved men, women, and children across Montpelier. (Photo by Proun Design, Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation)

“E Pluribus Unum,” by Rebecca Warde, is a mosaic created from pieces of brick excavated at living quarters of enslaved men, women, and children across Montpelier. Photo credit: Proun Design; courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation

H@W Editors: MDOC interprets primary sources in a variety of ways. How did you decide what type of exhibition elements to use? To what extent did the primary sources affect the storytelling or display tactics you used? Is there one element you found particularly challenging or rewarding to develop?

Chris Danemayer, Principal, Proun Design: The spaces with which we had to work (small cellar rooms, low ceilings, two entrances, wood, clay and brick floors, slave quarters, smokehouses) influenced how we told the stories. Ultimately, we decided to feature one story per room. One unusual example of the integration of primary source material into the exhibits occurs in the southernmost room of the cellars. What at first appears to be a decorative stenciled border soon reveals a listing of the names of over 300 individuals that were enslaved by the Madisons. Most are just first names, others are listed as “unknown.” In one of the smokehouses, letters written by some of the enslaved are elegantly edge-lit. They plead for their mistress, Dolly Madison, to intervene before the sheriff sells them at auction to pay down a debt. The surprising mode of delivery of this primary source information is arresting and memorable.

Molly O’Brien, Senior Produce, Northern Light Productions: During the design process, we kept in mind three major considerations:

  • We wanted to respect and humanize the lives of the enslaved,
  • We wanted to provide variety in the visitor experience,
  • We wanted to keep making connections between past and present so that the history felt real, relevant, personal, and important.

Primary sources have been called “history in the raw.” You feel people from the past speaking to you, and that immediacy is hard to replicate otherwise. But the language of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America is not always user-friendly for twenty-first-century visitors. So we knew we wanted to draw on primary sources for the media, but we had to make it accessible. Fortunately, we had a lot to go on. The impressive research done by Montpelier and others was a gold mine.

In some cases, primary sources informed the research but weren’t used directly. For example, we drew on others’ research of primary documents, such as census and trading records, to interpret the slave trade. An existing animation showed how the Atlantic slave trade forcibly transferred millions of Africans to the Americas, and we created a companion animation to illustrate how after that trade was banned in 1808, slave trading did not stop; it became big business within the U.S., and Virginia led the way. The dots in the animation represent human lives, and the sheer scale of the slave trade becomes horrifyingly apparent.

As Danemeyer mentioned, since the exhibition is located in the mansion’s cellars, we had to shape the experience to the physical space as well. In one area, a small anteroom leads to the secure storage area where the Madisons locked up their valuable food. The anteroom wasn’t big enough to install physical displays, but it was well suited for projection. As visitors enter the space, they see excerpts from letters and bills of sale that convey what it means for people to be turned into property. In one excerpt that still haunts me, Dolley Madison wrote to her son, “If you can wait for a few days I hope to send you $100 which will put your clothes in order—by the sale of Ellen at $400.” She is selling a human she had known her entire life so her son could be fashionably attired.

We used the Constitution itself is a primary source, too. It played a central role in shaping the exhibition. The tension between the “big history” of the economic and political drivers of the time and “small history” of the lived experiences of the enslaved and enslavers is purposeful. It allows visitors to consider big picture themes but a single life. I think we can all relate to this because we are also living in turbulent times. How do our individual lives and choices connect with larger forces at play? What is the human cost of large political decisions? How did the economic incentives of slavery worm their way into the structure of our society? Who will get to tell my history, and how will I be represented? I think exhibitions are successful when they not only provide interpretation and insights but also provoke questions and conversations.

Editors’ Note: In our next and final installment, we’ll read more about the conversations MDOC has inspired.

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