What belongs in a historic house museum?

It has been a while since I posted. Life got busy and I got a new job, my first professional public history position with South Carolina Department of Parks  Recreation and Tourism.

Recently, thanks to the fine people of The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums, I came across a blog post that was questioning the future of historic house museums, as another institution that would be taken over by political correctness. (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/will-history-only-remember-the-founders-as-slaveowners/) In this case, the author is dismayed that the current interpretation of founding father’s homes focuses on slavery more than their political accomplishments.  She also refers specifically to Fort Hill in Clemson SC, the place where I started my public history career.

She refers specifically to two historic house museums that I am familiar with.  Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier.  In these cases I think there is a disconnect between author expectations and tour delivery.  I know for certain at Monticello there is a museum that does deal with Thomas Jefferson’s political career and life.

Personally I believe the house museum should be a much more intimate tour.  You are walking among the rooms where numerous people created lives, created memories, suffered, ate, drank, danced, etc…  In TJ and JM’s case, their luxurious lives and political accomplishments were only possible through slavery.  For that reason, slavery should play a large role in the house tour.  Slaves were just as much a part of that house as the white owners. The house tour’s purpose is to illustrate daily life (generally), and politics would have taken a back seat to agriculture and leisure pursuits in the big house.

Secondly, many of their great political accomplishments did not occur in their homes.  Generally historic sites focus on specific site history, so it would be more appropriate to learn about Jefferson’s law career in Williamsburg, or his contributions to the Declaration of Independence at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The Fort Hill example is a little more interesting.  There is an office in the back of the big house where John Calhoun created some of his most important political thoughts.  However, the lion’s share of his political work revolved around defending slavery as a positive good.  So wouldn’t it make sense that the tour would focus on the lives of those his political work impacted?

As a final note, the author makes the assertion that if Madison had freed his slaves they would simply starve without his benevolence.  Seeing as how there was a sizeable free black population in Virginia in 1820 (40,000 http://userpages.umbc.edu/~bouton/History407/SlaveStats.htm), the idea that they would starve is simply ludicrous.

This is just a quick blog post, and I hope to come back at it later to flesh out some of the ideas a bit more.  This does not even begin to discuss how difficult it would be to boil down some Founding Father’s political accomplishments in a 30-40 minute tour.

By telling the story of the enslaved and their role in home life, you are actually telling a more complete story of a founding father’s life, rather than omitting the glorious parts.  Perhaps the author should visit Mount Vernon, which does a fantastic job of separating domestic and political spheres of Washington’s life, with no detail spared!


Author: rekindlegoldglory

Just a public historian.

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