Montpelier—Frequently Asked Questions
What exactly is the relationship between the National Trust and The Montpelier Foundation?
Montpelier is a co-stewardship site owned by the National Trust and operated by The Montpelier Foundation through a formal agreement and lease. This co-stewardship arrangement, now more than 2 decades old, was conceived to empower the site to operate independently and to have local management and governance authority. This means that the National Trust does not have authority over either management or board governance. Under this agreement, the National Trust has the right to approve certain physical changes to the property, but does not have the authority to make changes to either the board or staff of The Montpelier Foundation. The National Trust has supported the work to achieve the ideals and principles of descendant involvement and structural parity. The National Trust has paid for facilitators to work with the Montpelier Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee to assist in resolving their differences. The National Trust has the right to appoint one ex officio representative on the Board of The Montpelier Foundation, a role currently held by the National Trust’s General Counsel, Tom Mayes, who opposed and voted against the bylaws change.
What is the National Trust doing to interpret sites of enslavement and engage with descendant communities at its other sites?
The National Trust’s portfolio of 28 historic sites includes eleven places with histories of slavery. They are as far north as Newport, Rhode Island, as far west as Monterey, California, and as far south as New Iberia, Louisiana, with the biggest concentration in the mid-Atlantic: Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, and Virginia. Since the 1990s, the National Trust has supported the interpretation of slavery at these sites by providing periodic trainings and annual grant funding to support interpretation and education projects at individual sites. However, historically, both the National Trust and the sites within our portfolio, like much of the rest of the field, have fallen short of honestly, adequately, and equitably addressing the realities and legacies of slavery in historic places. In 2018, the ground-breaking Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites Rubric was produced at Montpelier in collaboration with and supported by funding from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust.
In 2020, Elon Cook Lee, the Director of Interpretation and Education, brought Trust initiatives and site-based interpretation together by establishing SHINE (Stewarding sites of enSlaved History through INterpretation and Education.) Since its inception, this collaborative working group has identified areas for examination and experimentation, implemented best practices, reconsidered plantation weddings and other celebratory events, embraced ethical and equitable descendent engagement and explored best practices in the areas of recruiting and retaining diverse staff. In addition, the group also engages in discussing broader questions of interpretation and equity, including how the long legacy of slavery impacts historic sites today, and how to more adequately explore and see whiteness. Each SHINE initiative centers on the foundational pillars and core learnings of the Engaging Descendant Communities Rubric. This invaluable tool not only gives a framework in which the group can work, but sites also evaluate themselves using the rubric semi-annually to track their individual improvements and chart new goals.
SHINE sites are diverse geographically and architecturally and their achievements and challenges are equally complex. Some sites have been collaborating with organized nonprofit descendants of slavery groups for many years or even decades, others have started by welcoming descendants onto their boards or advisory councils or engaging them to assist with research. Several have more recently begun descendant engagement initiatives with the support of grants. Equitable and ethical community engagement work is challenging for any institution, but it can be all the more difficult when the site has a history of racial violence, oppression, and exclusion. These historical truths echo in the present as few or none of the permanent full-time staff at these historic sites are descended from victims of that history. Nevertheless, SHINE participants, using the Rubric, seek to address historical and contemporary inequities and grow in the best practices of interpretation with each convening, and, more importantly, through dedicated work between sessions.
In 2021 SHINE inspired the creation of RISE (Reinterpreting International Sites of Enslavement) a cross-Atlantic collaboration with the International Trusts Organization (INTO) that brings National Trust sites together with Trustees of Reservations, National Parks Service, and historic sites with histories of slavery in the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. This international group meets throughout the year to explore, exchange ideas and support each other in the pursuit of best practices in the interpretation of slavery and site stewardship.
The work being done at sites of enslavement, both with RISE and SHINE, is about using the lessons of the past to move forward into a more equitable future. This is what some have termed “repair work”. Researching painful histories, building relationships and creating more accurate portrayals of the past is not easy and cannot be done quickly. But, like the National Trust’s Black Lives Matter statement reminds us, this must be done with a sense of urgency. For those interpreters engaging with the history of slavery in the rooms and landscapes where it happened, it is labor. It is mental, physical and often emotional labor. For those engaging with descendants, it can take years, even decades, to create equitable relationships built on trust, after generations of exclusion. We steward houses, plantations, spaces and places that are sites of trauma—not only with regard to the periods of slavery, but the trauma of its legacies. And so, while this briefly covers the work in which the National Trust has and is currently engaging, it is by no means complete and it is work to which we are deeply committed in perpetuity.
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