Interpreting Slavery in Historic Cities

A couple weeks ago, I (Rose) had the pleasure to attend a panel discussion on Interpreting Slavery in a Historic City moderated by Porchia Moore. This event was held at the Jepson Center in Savannah, GA and brought together four panelists from different local institutions (see flyer below) (note: the flyer lists five names; George Liele wasn’t present). Each institution, whether a historic house or plantation is linked to the institution of slavery and is taking steps to move towards more authentic narratives, meaning, narratives that foreground the realities of slavery and the lives of enslaved people on site.

Porchia asked a series of bold questions that focused on the inherent institutional change necessary in moving towards more authentic narratives, the opportunities historic sites have to help us understand how the legacies of slavery continue to have ripple effects today, and the importance of considering one’s positionality when engaging in this public interpretation work.

Porchia’s questions appear below. You can use these to consider your own practice and the work of your organization in interpreting slavery or other “difficult” histories and contemporary realities. Use these questions in dialogue with a colleague or start a conversation in the comments below, we would love to hear your thoughts.

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Flyer of the panel discussion Interpreting Slavery in a Historic City at the Jepson Center in Savannah, GA. Credit: Telfair Museums.

  1. The weight of historic and current racial tensions is palpable. Do you have interpreters of color at your sites. If so, how are you assisting them in creating a safe way to do this work of interpreting slavery?
  2.  There seems to be a shift in the approach to how 21st century cultural institutions connected to legacies of slavery are imaging their roles and purposes. What do you think has caused this shift and what were the reasons for your institution answering the challenge to make these shifts?
  3.  Institutional change is necessary in order to make permanent impact. What has been the response of your staff and/or visitors to new interpretations or counter-narratives? Can you share with us the process or steps for creating institutional change?
  4. Are historic houses and sites the key to understanding racial inequality or is this an unrealistic goal for these institutions?
  5. It seems to me that there is inherent risk in interpreting slavery. Risk of emotion. Risk of alienating audience expectations. Risk of investing time and resources into new narratives and ways of doing things. Talk to us about your relationship with risk and why it matters?
  6. Talk to us about resources. What resources have you used, need, or have had to create in order to interpret slavery at your site?
  7. Let’s talk about the issue of relevance. Why do historic churches, sites, and house museums matter when we have access to information at our fingertips via Google and the web?
  8. There are many who argue that focusing on the institution of slavery and the lives of the enslaved is too traumatizing. While some advocate that telling these narratives and new interpretations is the only path to healing. Talk to us about your “why”? What’s your reason for interpreting slavery? How does your site deal with trauma and triggering?
  9. Personal values matter. Speak to us about your own positionality. Would you share with us about the complexities of your own racial identities and the role this plays in how you approach interpreting the institution of slavery at your site?
  10. In our current climate of accusations of fake news and post-truth, how do we arrive at honest, fact-based interpretation of slavery and reconstruction at historic house museums and other sites which does not leave us open to declarations that our interpretations and new narratives are revisionist histories?
  11. What 3 things do you need for sure in order to do this work of interpreting slavery?
Call to action: connect with The Slave Dwelling Project and support the work of Joseph McGill.
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One comment

  1. What excellent questions, Porchia! Thank you for sharing, Rose.

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