The making of James Madison’s Montpelier’s “The Mere Distinction of Colour” Q&A: Part 6

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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, part 4, and part 5 here. This is the final post our our 6-part series.


H@W Editors: How does MDOC encourage visitors to have conversations about the history of slavery at JMM and related issues in contemporary life while visiting JMM?

Rebecca Gilmore Coleman, a member of the James Madison's Montpelier Descendant Community, reflecting in front of an interpretive sign for a slave cemetery at James Madison's Montpelier (Photo by Eduardo Montes Bradley, Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation)

Rebecca Gilmore Coleman, a member of the James Madison’s Montpelier Descendant Community, reflecting in front of an interpretive sign for a slave cemetery at James Madison’s Montpelier. Photo credit: Eduardo Montes Bradley, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation


Price Thomas, Director of Communications, JMM: There are a variety of ways that people can interact with the exhibition and each other, either directly in the space or digitally. Within the exhibition, there are two “Leave Your Voice” walls where visitors can write questions and/or comments about the exhibition and their experience. These comments run the gamut from praise to consternation to queries and stories. We have actually seen visitors having asynchronous conversations with each other via these cards. Someone will write a comment or pose a question, and someone else will write a response.

What we’ve seen from these cards confirms what we already felt at a gut level: our visitors come to Montpelier from a variety of backgrounds, opinions, and openness to these difficult conversations. Some people are excited and ready to dive right in; others are interested but reticent, looking for context and a vocabulary; and others are entirely closed off and angry. Again, we knew this going in and wanted this exhibition to elicit emotion from our visitors, even if that emotional response isn’t always positive.

We collect and scan every card and are in the process of building a public profile around them so that the broader public will be able to see what their fellow visitors are saying. We are also developing an online “Leave Your Voice” platform as part of a larger initiative to expand the reach of the exhibition and include more folks, including those who can’t visit us geographically, into our work and the topics we discuss.

Lucas Allamon, House Supervisor, JMM: Often in the world of museums, communication is vertical. One of the distinctive features of MDOC is that it encourages dialogue between the museum and the public, as Price suggested. Sometimes these written “conversations” [using the exhibition’s quotation station] would go back and forth between several participants over the course of days. In these instances, our institution was no longer the “lecturer”; instead, the exhibition itself helped to facilitate a dialogue between individuals who would never physically meet.

H@W Editors: Shortly after MDOC opened in 2017, a “Unite the Right” rally, which took place nearby in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent. How did current events like that one affect Montpelier’s programming or the framing of the exhibition in particular?

Kay Imhoff, CEO, JMM: To be honest, not much. We were on this path before the violence erupted in Charlottesville. These events, unfortunately, reinforced the primacy of our work and why we need to continue to lead these difficult but vital conversations about how our past still affects our present and to use this knowledge to move forward.

In the months since the rally, we’ve had the opportunity to work with thousands of students from Charlottesville/Albemarle to help them shape some of the complex questions they are generating about race, history, and culture. We’re proud to be a place where our communities feel comfortable convening these conversations and are excited to continue engaging with the public around these challenging topics.

H@W Editors: How do you hope this exhibition is changing the way your visitors understand the Madisons’ legacy and the founding era more broadly?

Elizabeth Chew, Vice President for Museum Programs, JMM: I hope that visitors to historic sites are beginning to take the founders off their pedestals and, as one of our interpreters says, “look them in the eye.” I am always frustrated when visitors respond to slavery interpretation by asking why we are demeaning Madison. Looking at Madison, Jefferson, and Washington as slaveholders does not take anything away from them or diminish their achievements. It completes the picture.

Margaret Jordan, Descendant of Paul Jennings: Recently, I met two couples who had visited the exhibition. They told me how moving and deeply touching the exhibition is and, at the same time, how much they had learned. They recounted various aspects of it, such as the videos and the descendant testimonies. And they also described how the exhibition helped them understand the trade-offs made in the founding of America related to the institution of slavery.

In a time in which our nation is deeply divided, it is my hope that the exhibition will educate visitors and cause them to have a deeper reflection on and engagement with the legacy of slavery in all its complexities. Understanding of our history, slavery’s role in the nation’s founding, and slavery’s legacy in today’s society are all necessary to making progress on racial relations and cultural diversity in our society.

Editors’ Note: This is the final installment of our conversation with James Madison’s Montpelier staff and collaborators about the exhibition The Mere Distinction of Colour. You can visit this award-winning exhibition at Madison’s home in Virginia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.