I would like to start this blog post by thanking one of my undergraduate professors, Dr. Paul Anderson, for teaching me to always look at the root of word when trying to understand its historic context.
With that in mind, let us consider plantation museums and historic sites that revolve around antebellum plantations. I remember recently reading an article on History News Network. The article was partly a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The book is unique in that it reinterprets plantations as “slave labor camps”. The argument behind the change is that plantation has become too romanticized, and I certainly agree to an extent. But I do not agree with the name change, for the sole reason that it carries too much baggage from the 20th century. While I am not lessening the horror of plantation slavery, it has very little in common with North Korean labor camps.
In today’s house museum landscape, the only remaining piece of many antebellum plantation complexes is the grand mansion, often known as the big house. These finely appointed houses were just the focal point of a massive farming operation. A plantation is not a house, but because the big house is usually the only place standing the two are often synonymous.
This is where there should be a new focus on interpreting plantation sites. Rather than just focusing on the house, focus on the plantation as a whole. The word plantation, as it relates to antebellum plantations, has roots in the 16th century. People in the 16th century understood plantation to mean factory. So when interpreting sites, they should be presented as they were understood: factory farms (whether it was rice, tobacco, indigo, cotton, or sugar).
Some places are fortunate enough to have working farm examples (like Mount Vernon or Historic Brattonsville), but many smaller museums only have the house and maybe 1 or 2 outbuildings. While recently at Hampton Plantation (see my post on visualizing lost history), I was amazed by the remnants of the historic rice fields. Dikes and flooded fields marked the boundaries where many slaves once toiled in rice production. However, I was stymied by a lack of interpretative material available. What was the rice process? Why did it require such a complex network of dikes? How did this impact the environment (creating artificial mosquito habitats!)? Where did all this rice go? Hampton is trying to go that direction with new interpretive material, and their efforts should be applauded.
To help visitors understand that a plantation is more than a house, a greater focus should be placed on the farming and production activities (The 1860 Agricultural Census is a great place to start for any plantation or farming museum!)
Some museums may struggle with additional interpretation, particularly if their plantation big house is now in a built up area, it can be much more difficult for visitors to visualize that it was once a working farm. In this case, there are wide variety of research materials you can draw on to create exhibit material (Historic prints and farming manuals, agricultural records from contemporaries, etc).
This is just a short post, and I would love to see some interpretative materials that push to explain the plantation as a whole unit, not just a house where some people lived. Expanding the interpretation will provide for more stories (of the African slaves who worked the fields, to overseers, to merchants who dealt with agricultural products) and a better understanding of the plantation economy.