Mount Vernon

DC Day 8

You may have noticed that days 6 and 7 are missing, well it was the weekend, so I took a break from the blog. Today was day 8 of the seminar, which was spent at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The focus of today was tackling the conversation of slavery in museums. Mount Vernon recently opened a new exhibit on slavery, Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, which we toured with the lead Associate Curator of the exhibit.

Discussing slavery is a controversial topic, but it is a topic that needs to be and should be discussed. In order to enter the exhibit, you must open a set of glass doors, which are covered with the names of the enslaved people who were at Mount Vernon. One thing that stuck out to me was that the Curator said it was a conscious decision to put the names on the door with a bust of George Washington in the lobby, so that when you look at the doors the first thing you focus on is the name of the people.

Entrance to “Lives Bound Together”

I liked this concept, in fact I had not even noticed the bust of George Washington through the doors because I was looking at the names. From the get-go, the visitor is aware that the enslaved people are the focus of the exhibit and not necessarily Washington as the primary focus.

Another noticeable trend was that the staff do not refer to the people as slaves, but as enslaved people. There is a difference between the two terms, and referring to them as enslaved humanizes them more so than slaves does because the choice of word influences how you interpret the content. In our discussions with staff, it was evident that word choice is very important, especially when discussing slavery because you want the visitor to make a personal connection and be educated during their visit.

A trend that I have noticed throughout our museum visits is the use of silhouettes and unidentifiable drawings of people. The National Museum of the American Indian used these non-detailed drawings in the interactive about “what would you do,” and Mount Vernon used the same technique in the exhibit’s introduction video and on the panels of the enslaved people highlighted in the exhibit. When talking about a large group of people and, in the case of Mount Vernon, when detailed records are not available the visuals should reflect the broader idea. When images or drawings were available, the curatorial team at Mount Vernon included those images in the panels.

Lives Bound Together was an enlightening exhibit for me because I did not know some of the information presented, such as that Washington did not actually own all the slaves working on his farms and that slaves could be rented. The latter was shocking to me because I had never heard that before, and I am an educated person. Slavery needs to be discussed in museums because it is an important story to tell.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

DC Day 1

The first day of the DC seminar started at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). This was my first time visiting, and I had high expectations for my visit. I was not disappointed. I spent most of my visit in the History Galleries, which are immersive because the first floor you enter is dark and dim, and as you go forward in time the lighting slowly gets brighter and it is barely noticeable. Videos and audio play throughout in the background. The video screens ranged in size from the typical television screen to a large television coming out of the floor in the middle of a room. There are many opportunities to interact with technology throughout the museum, but it is not distracting, it enhances the story.

The museum tackles the African American story in both a broad and personal way, for example, in the section about slavery maps show the countries slaves were taken from and where they ended up, but the background image is a collection of ship names, the final port, the number of slaves on the ship, and the number of slaves who made it alive.

Names of slave ships

It is very powerful to see the details of such a broad concept. This juxtaposition was evident in several galleries. When leaving the area about slavery and walking into the next room I was stopped in my tracks by a statue of Thomas Jefferson with bricks stacked behind him, which were inscribed with the names of Jefferson’s slaves.

Thomas Jefferson statue

I immensely enjoyed the lunch counter interactive in the Civil Rights section of the exhibition. The first thing I saw was one of the Woolworth counter stools, which I picked as my object for the pre-seminar assignment. Once I got over my excitement in seeing that stool, I realized there was an entire counter with digital screens and lunch stools. The screens are designed to look like a menu you would see if you were at a Woolworth’s counter. There are different scenarios, such as sit-ins, education, and the Freedom Rides, and you choose a scenario and answer questions about how you would react to those various situations. It is quite an ethical dilemma, and it is striking how brave and courageous the African Americans who were part of these situations and protests were. I honestly do not know if I would have had the strength they did. This interactive was very powerful for me.

Woolworth’s lunch counter stool
Lunch counter interactive
Lunch counter interactive menu

The second half of the day was spent learning about the Empathetic Museum with Gretchen Jennings. Our discussion focused on institutional empathy, which is guided by the museum’s mission, guidelines, and training. The Maturity Model developed by the team at the Empathetic Museum is a great tool for understanding how a museum can become empathetic and see where they currently fall. It made me think about the opportunities available for museums to interact with their communities and be a place that every person can go to in both good times and bad.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Woolworth lunch counter stools

© 2015.226.1, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Donated by the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Greensboro, NC

Browsing the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) website results in viewing many important objects. After looking through several collection and exhibition pages, I kept thinking about the counter stools from the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in. It is fascinating how a mundane object, such as a counter stool, has such a powerful connection to an important event and an entire culture.

The Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in is one of the most recognizable protests by African Americans during the Civil Rights Era. Public spaces were segregated, including restaurants. Every person should be allowed to have the right to eat in a restaurant, but that was denied to four African American students in 1960. Despite the importance of this particular protest, I personally do not know many details about the protest or the restaurant. I think it is important to learn more about this event and its significance to the Civil Rights Movement and actions to end segregation. I think these stools are impactful because of the story they tell, and without the connection to the Woolworth lunch counter protests, they would just be ordinary counter stools.

The stools are connected to several broad topics that relate to the African American experience, not only in the Civil Rights Era, but throughout history. The themes include segregation, discrimination, courage, peaceful protests, and others. The four college students who sat down at these stools experienced so much hate and discrimination, but they had the courage and resilience to peacefully fight back for basic rights that had been denied to African Americans for too long. These stools are just one of the tools used in the fight for equal rights.