January 10, 2019

New Rubric for Engaging Descendant Communities at Museums and Historic Sites

Last February James Madison’s Montpelier, in partnership with the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, launched the first interdisciplinary National Summit on Teaching Slavery. Over one weekend, a group of educators, curators, scholars, activists, museum and historic site professionals, and descendants of enslaved and freed people gathered to develop a model rubric for best practices in descendant engagement and slavery interpretation. Montpelier’s experience with descendant engagement around the recent “The Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibition informed the approach.

"The Legacies of Slavery" connects the history of slavery to many of the racial and cultural issue we still contend with today. | Credit: Eze Amos, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation

This fall Montpelier released the result of the summit. "Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites" is a rubric that:

Contains concrete steps to ensure high-quality research, make connections and maintain relationships with descendants, and create inclusive, and accurate and empathetic exhibits and programs. It gives museums a place from which to start addressing difficult themes and traumatic legacies of slavery. Most importantly, the Rubric insists sites work with descendants of the enslaved at every step to ensure that they are interpreting slavery in a manner that is effective, informative, and respectful of the experiences of the millions of men, women, and children who were enslaved.

To explore the different facets of the rubric, we interviewed several staff at Montpelier: Elizabeth Chew, vice president for museum programs; Hannah Scruggs, manager of the Montpelier Descendants’ Project; and Christian Cotz, director of education and visitor engagement.

The rubric’s introduction emphasizes the importance of ethics and of telling an “authentic” history. What is an authentic history? And how critical is it to engage descendant communities to create this shift in the interpretation of slavery?

Elizabeth Chew: One of the motivations for creating the rubric was to give all historic sites a roadmap for achieving authenticity through descendant engagement. Although many sites have been interpreting the stories of enslaved individuals and the institution of slavery since the early 1990s—or even earlier—there has been a tendency to “intellectualize” slavery, presenting it as an academic subject and an abstraction. When partnering with our descendant community to plan and implement “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” we decided to emphasize the humanity of those enslaved at Montpelier. One of our strategies for doing so was including the voices of their descendants. When visitors come to the exhibition, they realize that the enslaved workers who labored to make the Madisons’ lives at Montpelier possible have living descendants walking the earth today—real contemporary people. This helps audiences confront the institution of slavery on a human scale, as something that happened to this actual person’s great-great-grandfather. Without involving descendants in decision-making and content delivery, our interpretation would be much weaker.

A group of participants engage in a breakout session during the National Summit on Teaching Slavery | Credit: Andrew Shurtleff/AP Images for James Madison's Montpelier

The rubric presents three pillars: multidisciplinary research, relationship building with descendant communities, and interpretation. Why is it essential to include all three when interpreting slavery? How do they come together to shift practice?

Chew: Museums and historic sites interpret slavery based on documents, oral histories, genealogy, archaeology, architectural history, and other material culture. Because slavery was largely ignored by academic and public historians until the third quarter of the 20th century, many research materials remain in the possession, and in the memories, of descendants. Thus, research cannot be completed without descendant involvement. Complete and authentic interpretation is based on multidisciplinary research, which should rely on/include descendant engagement.

How can an approach that incorporates multidisciplinary research and tools add to the existing historical knowledge? How can art, oral histories, or material culture build a more complete picture of this particular past?

Hannah Scruggs: A multidisciplinary approach fleshes out our understanding of the past. Different disciplines collect different knowledge using their different approaches; taken together, they help us understand history from different angles.

Ann Chinn of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project experiences The Mere Distinction of Colour. | Credit: Kendall Madigan, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation

We have often relied on documents as windows to the past, but documents don’t tell us everything, and typically—especially during the early stages of the republic—they tell the stories of people with more privilege. Material culture and art, can reinforce information from text documents; provide us with concrete details, such as visuals; and help us uncover information that may not be included in texts. Oral history is another rich source, especially since not every group has a written tradition. Oral history allowed African Americans in the antebellum South to keep culture and history intact when reading and writing were neither the safest nor the surest ways of retaining information.

The rubric emphasizes the need to recognize differences when building relationships with descendant communities, suggesting that true collaborative practice is borne of a recognition that communities are not singular monoliths. How does the rubric encourage this open-ended approach?

Scruggs: The rubric focuses on building, nurturing, and maintaining relationships. It is important to get to know people and build relationships within the community. Without trust, how can a truly collaborative effort happen? The rubric also emphasizes approaching meetings and time with descendants respectfully, with social, cultural, and emotional awareness and sensitivity.

Member of the Montpelier Descendant Community, Leontyne Peck, participating in archaeological examination at James Madison's Montpelier. | Credit: Eduardo Montes-Bradley, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation

The rubric explains that many institutions take a “segregationist” approach to telling the story of slavery in America. What are some of the challenges to weaving slavery into the central narrative? What strategies can institutions consider as they attempt to make that shift?

Christian Cotz: Frequently, sites or museums that interpret slavery treat it as an entirely separate narrative, both thematically and geographically. For example, though it is rarely presented this way, you will often find the outdoor “enslaved community tour” and the indoor “enslavers tour.” Or, in a gallery exhibit, the traditional white narrative takes up most of the real estate, with only a corner devoted to the counternarrative.

Interpreters, educators, and exhibit designers must learn to present holistic narratives that include the lives and stories of all people related to a site or subject.

The biggest roadblocks to telling holistic narratives are typically institutional resistance, content knowledge or availability, staff willingness, and audience reception. First, institutional leadership must be on board and willing to invest in and support ethical interpretation, even if that may mean losing staff, donors, or visitation. Second, the research needs to be done and the information disseminated to staff. Third, interpretive staff need to be retrained. We can’t tell the same story and add an anecdote or two; we need to rethink programming on a thematic level. And staff need time to incorporate the new information into interpretation, programs, and exhibitions, and then observe and evaluate the results. Staff resistant to change need to go.

As programming and interpretation change, some part of the audience will not be receptive—but our job is to educate, not alienate through a didactic or sanctimonious approach. Staff trained to recognize where the audience is standing on the cultural awareness ladder can meet them there and help them to the next rung.

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