Public Historian on Vacation Series: Final Stop – Louisiana

Finally coming to the end of my Public Historian on Vacation series. I spent so much time writing about San Antonio even though we were only there for 2 days because we packed a lot into 2 days, it was our first time visiting, and it was so beautiful and interesting. After we visited the Missions we also checked out the San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden, went back to the River Walk and ate at Casa Rio, the oldest restaurant on the River (1946)–(another example of commercialization of history, drawing on the past to create a certain atmosphere, and to substantiate the quality of the restaurant. Which was pretty yummy Mexican.)

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After San Antonio, we drove back towards the East and stopped over in New Iberia, Louisiana, an adorable small town and home to my wonderful friend and graduate school support person, Jayd. It is also home to the historic site Jayd works at, the Shadows-on-the-Teche, a historic house museum owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We visited Jayd at the Shadows and took a tour from one of the regular guides.

Built along the Bayou Teche, the Shadows was constructed in 1834 for sugarcane planter David Weeks and his wife Mary Conrad Weeks. To be honest, house museums are not my favorite kind of museum as their tours are often formulaic, focused a great deal more on architectural and design history than social history (my personal interest) and I often have a difficult time keeping the various generations of the family and all of the family names organized in my mind as we go through the house. But this house and this tour are interesting for the various ways that the house’s origins and its more recent history are alongside one another.

The house stayed in the same family for a very long time, from its construction through 1958, creating the opportunity to trace one family over several generations. The house has mostly been restored to the antebellum time period in which it was built, but one section of the house interprets more the life and times of the house’s last private owner, William Weeks Hall. His life stood out to me as the most interesting. He was an accomplished artist and knew many other artists and visionaries of his time, including Walt Disney, Henry Miller, Emily Post and more. Visitors to the Shadows during William Weeks Hall’s time were asked to sign an old door that remains on display.

Like most plantation homes today, the interpretation included something about the enslaved people who lived and worked both in the home and in the fields and other properties owned by the Weeks family, though like most historic house museums today that interpretation could use a little something more. We were told that the family depended on and supported slavery, secession, and the South in the Civil War, but less is known about the enslaved people and as such less is shared about them than the white plantation family. But I know more research is being done with the intentions of adding more about the enslaved African Americans at the site. And more information about slavery at the Shadows is available on their website. Overall, well worth a visit and they do some really interesting educational and special programming as well. I may be biased, but Jayd is a passionate public historian and educator who is doing some great work there.

After our tour we went to dinner with Jayd and Graig for some local Cajun food at Pelicans on the Bayou. We had poboys and Crawfish Kickers (a fried crawfish appetizer, kind of like a hushpuppy). And awesome Magic Dust (Cajun seasoning) french fries. And then we set off with Jayd to New Orleans for the rest of the weekend.

We went to New Orleans last year as well and we love NOLA. This year’s foray was with a native Louisianan but unfortunately it was also during a monsoon. I’m exaggerating a little. Rain, wind, clouds, and thunder made Saturday rather gloomy. Before it really started pouring we went to Cafe du Monde, the iconic cafe known for their beignets and cafe au lait. Cafe du Monde has been in operation since 1862 and is one of few things I find totally worth the line, which, thanks to the staff’s efficiency, moves pretty fast. Delicious beignets, wonderful coffee, and the simplicity of it–that’s quite literally all that’s on the menu–all combine into a warm, fuzzy experience. Cafe du Monde is another example of a restaurant successfully capitalizing on its history and longevity. So much so that it doesn’t have to offer anything else. But even after becoming a must see for any New Orleans tourist, the quality of the food and the experience remain. Because, trust me, there are plenty of other places to get beignets in the French Quarter without the line, but there isn’t a line for a reason–they simply aren’t as good.

After pumping ourselves full of caffeine and sugar we set off without a plan into the French Quarter to find something to do. We considered the Cabildo, but it was closed for an exhibit installation. The weather began to get worse and worse so we stopped off at the 1850 House Museum located in the Lower Pontalba Building on Jackson Square. This was a unique house museum in that it was more of an apartment building that had had many different residents over the years. It interprets upper-middle-class life of antebellum New Orleans. Most interesting to me is that the building and its mate, the Upper Pontalba Building across Jackson Square, were designed and financed by a woman, Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba. Both buildings were intended to be combinations of residential and retail spaces. The 1850 House is small and it’s a quick tour of the three floors, including going through the back staircase to the slave and servant quarters and working spaces. (Picture on left above shows one of the Pontalba buildings, but on Sunday when the sun came out.)

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When the weather continued to get worse it drove us from the French Quarter to what we thought would be a safer, drier, and more enjoyable visit to the National World War II Museum.  Well, every other tourist in New Orleans, which was also holding the rained out French Quarter Festival that weekend, had the same idea and we waited in line to get tickets, then to see exhibits, then to eat, only to arrive at the extra experience we had paid for (Final Mission: USS Tang) to find that it was down due to technical difficulties (we were reimbursed, but had walked to that separate building in the rain just for it). Overall, it was a pretty disappointing and frustrating day. It called into mind issues on the visitor experience side of museums. All three of us had been to the WWII Museum before and we knew that it was an impressive, well-done Museum with interactive exhibits, special features, and more. But what if that rainy day had been our first visit? We may have left with a very negative view of the Museum or at least not feeling like it was worth it. Visitor experience and basic qualities of comfort such as benches, crowding, accessibility, etc. really affect visitors’ ability to learn and get the most out of the museum.

It was difficult to focus on what was presented in the exhibits and hard not to feel like you were in someone else’s way. I was pleased to find they had added an immersive exhibit about the home front, often an excellent opportunity to discuss women’s roles during the war, with home interiors set up in 1940s style with places to sit, listen, and read; however, it was also full to the brim and we felt rushed through the space.

Some busy Museums use timed tickets to help control the number of visitors. Independence National Historical Park does so for visitors to Independence Hall, an effort which keeps the small structure from being overcrowded, a preservation necessity that also aids in creating a more positive visitor experience. Visitor caps might also help, keeping the number of visitors allowed in at any one time to a number that allows visitors access to exhibits without too much crowding. Museums have to weigh access, i.e. allowing as many visitors as possible to view the exhibits, with visitor experience, and often with financial concerns as well. Small museums need all of the admission fees they can get to help finance their collection, programs, and often simply operating expenses. However, the World War II Museum likely turns a profit and has been able to invest greatly in new buildings, high quality exhibits, etc. The tickets to the World War II Museum aren’t cheap ($28 for adults), which does give you access to a huge array of exhibits in several buildings, but when your experience is muddled by crowds and ultimately cut short by the exhaustion of dealing with them, you begin to question the value. This coming from two museum professionals (and a good sport of a husband).

Of course, the last time we visited the World War II Museum last year, it was busy without being overly crowded and perhaps we simply caught the unlucky rain-induced visitor onslaught. However, if the Museum finds itself having more and more of those days it may want to institute some sort of control over the number of visitors on forecasted busy days.

After leaving the National World War II Museum wet, tired, and a bit grumpy we went back to our AirBnb, took our host’s suggestion for dinner at the delicious Sassafras, drank the wine left graciously by our host, played cards, and called it a night. The weather cleared and the morning was sunny and breezy. We revisited Cafe du Monde, took a glorious walk around the French Quarter and said our goodbyes.

Our whole trip was full of wonderful times with family and friends, beautiful places, interesting history, and good times. Can’t wait to go back and see family again in Galveston, explore more of San Antonio, visit Jayd and explore more of New Iberia and Southeast Louisiana, and as always, eat more beignets in New Orleans. And of course looking forward to the next trip to anywhere–I always find the history.

Sleeping in Slave Quarters

A week ago I slept overnight in the Bellamy Mansion Museum’s slave quarters.

Your reaction might, like others who I told before the overnight stay, range from “What?” to “Why?” to something like, “You don’t hear that everyday.” So, let me provide some context and explain why I decided to sleep overnight in a slave dwelling.

The Slave Quarters at the Bellamy Mansion Museum, Wilmington, NC. Photo by author.
The Slave Quarters at the Bellamy Mansion Museum, Wilmington, NC. Photo by author.

Joseph McGill, an employee of the National Trust, the National Park Service, a consultant to historic sites, and a Civil War reenactor, began a non-profit organization called the Slave Dwelling Project. The project began with the simple act of Mr. McGill sleeping in slave dwellings. He began in South Carolina and has since slept in dwellings all across the South as well as in less-known slave spaces in Northern states including Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. The purpose of the overnight stays and the Slave Dwelling Project is to bring awareness to these structures and their need for preservation. Many of these structures are in danger of being demolished or of falling down due to neglect. Slave spaces have historically not been a focus of historic preservationists who have instead worked to save, preserve, and restore architecturally-significant buildings for their aesthetic value rather than historic. Mr. McGill’s efforts have brought attention to these spaces and helped to save several of them.

At many of his stays Mr. McGill has invited others to join him and thus when his visit to the Bellamy Mansion was arranged in concert with UNCW’s Public History Program, students and others were given the opportunity to stay the night as well.

Why did I decide to join the stay? My reasons were both professional and personal. In many ways Mr. McGill’s project and methods are a clear example of public history in action. When sleeping in these spaces and attracting public attention, Mr. McGill is encouraging connections between people and the past. Hopefully, he is inspiring some people to think about the importance of saving structures, objects, and other tangible evidence of the past, even if that past is painful. Hopefully, he is helping people to understand slavery on a more human level, to think about the experiences of those who lived in slave dwellings, and to realize that the stories of some groups of people have been undervalued and underrepresented in the past. These hopes were the basis of my professional interest in the project and the overnight stay. I wanted to know how he carried out the stays and how others reacted to them. I wanted to know if this experiential method was a helpful approach to presenting history to the public. These hopes also were a huge part of my personal interest. It’s hard to separate my professional goals and interests from my personal interest in history and my belief that learning from the past can impact our present and change our future. I wanted to connect with a difficult past, reflect on the lives of enslaved people, and be open to the emotions and ideas that might be sparked by spending the night in a slave dwelling.

My interest in and decision to participate did not, however, remove all doubt, anxiety, or concern for what the experience would be like. I worried about having difficult, uncomfortable, or awkward conversations even as I was prepared for and wanted to have these important discussions. I worried about how others would perceive my interest in participating because of my race. And I worried about other more practical or shallow concerns such as how well I would be able to sleep in a sleeping bag on a hard floor, if I would be warm enough, and if my back would be sore in the morning. Despite these concerns and worries I showed up to the Bellamy Mansion that evening ready to listen to Mr. McGill speak and participate in the overnight stay.

My sleeping area for the night.
My sleeping area for the night.IMG_5797

The evening began with Joseph McGill speaking to a public audience at the Bellamy Mansion Museum about his previous stays and the goals of the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill spoke about the origins of the project as well as the challenges he has faced in gaining access to some slave dwellings. It was interesting to hear about the slave dwellings that are on private land and the varying attitudes of those private owners toward the project. Some welcome his stays and make efforts to acknowledge the presence of extant slave dwellings while others deny him access.

After the public presentation we ate dinner and moved from the big house to the slave quarters, all gathering in one room of the 2-story building for what I expected to be a deep and interesting discussion led by Mr. McGill. We started informally chatting about a variety of things and McGill did share with us two examples of the responses he gets from the public. One was an angry email asking to be removed from a mailing list and charging the Slave Dwelling Project with “race baiting.” The other reaction was that of a child who participated in the project and wrote Mr. McGill a card admiring his work. These two reactions demonstrate the issue of race in our modern society and how the past is so central to discussions of race today.

Beyond sharing those reactions, Mr. McGill did not structure the discussion that followed as I expected, allowing conversation to flow in any direction. This led to some interesting discussions of other slave quarters he had stayed in and others we students knew about from our work on Still Standing. Also, one of the women staying with us explained why she had wanted to participate in the overnight stay. She discussed her connections to the past and her interests in genealogy. As an African American woman who had found enslaved ancestors and felt so connected to her past through genealogy the overnight stay was another way to connect to her family past. Listening to her speak reminded me of the strong ties some people have to the past and people’s interests in their personal and family history.

While some parts of the discussion were interesting, engaging, or fruitful, others meandered off topic. The overall experience was not what I had expected, with no one asking tough questions and no attempts at helping those staying for the first time to harness the power of the place. The power of place lies in context and in a person’s knowledge of the importance of where he or she is standing. Those moments when I felt connected or awed by the power of place were when I separated myself from the discussion going on and thought about the enslaved people who lived in the building. As we were gathered in one room, I thought about the prior residents’ gatherings in that dwelling, for work, for meals, for worship, rest, or fellowship. I tried to imagine the range of emotions they might have felt toward the big house and its occupants. From the window of the quarters I could see the big house. A usually very beautiful structure, in the dark and from the vantage point of the slave quarters I thought the mansion looked ominous, looming over the space. After our discussion ended and several of us students went upstairs to sleep, I thought about the sleeping arrangements of those who lived here when it was first built. I thought of the cold, of the luxury of my modern sleeping bag made for cold weather, of the electric heat that was temporarily placed in the dwelling. Throughout the night as I tossed and turned on the hard floor and woke up periodically, I looked forward to the morning when I could leave, go home, and take a warm shower. But then I thought of those previous inhabitants and how at the end of a night they could not leave. As I stood up and stretched sore muscles and stiff limbs, I thought of those rising from uncomfortable nights’ rests to perform a variety of manual tasks all day. It was these inner thoughts that were most powerful. I think that the Slave Dwelling Project could more effectively harness the power of place by encouraging these thoughts and reflections in those who choose to participate in the overnight stays. Had I not known a little about the history of slavery and the Bellamy Mansion, the experience might not have been as powerful. Mr. McGill could make his overnight stays more educational and more meaningful if he gently encouraged the free-flowing discussion in certain directions.

View of the 'big house' at night from the slave quarters. Photo by author.
View of the ‘big house’ at night from the slave quarters. Photo by author.

However, I understand why he does not. Mr. McGill’s mission with the Slave Dwelling Project is to raise awareness of the need to preserve slave dwellings. He does not extend this mission to include educating the public about the value of slave dwellings and the stories they can tell. But perhaps he should. If the power of place was harnessed to help people better understand slavery and the lives of those who lived in slave quarters, cabins, and numerous other kinds of slave spaces then the need to preserve those spaces would be even clearer.

The day following the night in the quarters, UNCW hosted a panel of speakers including Joseph McGill, Dr. Jan Davidson of the Cape Fear Museum, Dr. Nana Amponsah, African historian in UNCW’s history department, and Dr. Donyell Roseboro from the Watson School of Education. These speakers highlighted some of the important themes surrounding discussions of race, slavery, memory, preservation, and education. Most interesting to me was Dr. Roseboro’s discussion of the need to consider the agency of enslaved people rather than merely assuming they were passive victims. While enslaved African Americans were subjected to many things, they remained human beings and resisted slavery in many ways, namely by surviving it and forming communities, families, and other relationships despite their enslaved status. The panel encouraged further thought and reflection on the Slave Dwelling Project and my overnight stay and was a very valuable experience in its own right.

Overall, my night in the slave quarters was enlightening and meaningful, sparking a great deal of personal and professional reflection on slavery’s history, how we tell that history today, and what bearings that history has on our present. However, I think the experience could have been deeper if the context of slavery at the Bellamy Mansion had been discussed, if I knew more about the lives of those who resided in those quarters, if not only their work and negative living conditions were considered, but also their fellowship, family life and resistance, and if I had been confronted with more challenging questions of race and the influence of the past today. I think if the Slave Dwelling Project shifted its focus from awareness and preservation to education its programs could resonate deeper, if not wider, with those who join Mr. McGill for his overnight stays.

For more information on the Slave Dwelling Project: http://slavedwellingproject.org/ and specifically to see Mr. McGill’s reflections on this overnight stay alongside the reflection of my classmates: http://slavedwellingproject.org/slave-dwellings-as-classrooms/ 
Some local news coverage of our group’s stay at the Bellamy slave quarters: http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20150201/ARTICLES/150139984?p=1&tc=pg 

http://portcitydaily.com/2015/02/09/black-history-month-slave-quarters-stay-a-life-changing-experience-for-uncw-students/

A Perfect (Public History) Week

Last week was one of those busy, exciting weeks full of public history on all fronts. Last Monday I attended a meeting at the Burgwin-Wright House, a colonial house museum in downtown Wilmington, where my Museum Administration classmates, professor and I presented the products of our work from last semester on a Friends group sort of program. Because the Burgwin-Wright House is owned by the NC Colonial Dames Society, a membership program is not really needed (plus it would be confusing as membership in the Colonial Dames is limited by ancestry). Thus, we worked in consultation with the director and the museum manager to create a support program that more closely resembles a Friends group like those seen at state historic sites and museums. The group would be considered philanthropic only, not managerial, and would support the maintenance of the house as well as the educational programs held there. In the course last semester we worked to create drafts of a solicitation letter, informational brochure, return card, and thank you letter for the program. Monday’s meeting was to share the final products of this work with the house committee and answer their questions. It went well and I hope to see the program successfully implemented at the Burgwin-Wright in the near future.

Tuesday and Thursday were normal days in the University Archives where I am continuing to assist the archivist in assessing one of the collections for possible deaccessioning. Much of this material is from UNC General Administration rather than materials from UNCW specifically. The assessment and deaccessioning process will help to focus the collection and make it more useful for researchers. The current organization of the materials in this collection obscures its contents. The materials we are keeping from this collection will be reorganized so that they will be more accessible to researchers. Also, logistically speaking, the process frees up much-needed storage space.

Over the course of the week I also made some strides on my thesis, completing a rough draft of my first chapter and doing research for the second chapter. The first chapter needs some revisions, but focuses on the problems facing museum collections in terms of collecting and cataloging objects related to women’s history. It offers some suggestions for improvements at the Cape Fear Museum based on solutions used at other museums as well as scholars’ proposals of solutions. My next chapter will deal more directly with the use of these objects in interpreting women’s history and will provide some idea of the resources available for interpreting Wilmington women’s history at the Cape Fear Museum.

The Bellamy Mansion and UNCW Public History Program hosted a two-day symposium last week on the preservation of slave dwellings featuring Joseph McGill, the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. This event is in connection with the Still Standing project that the public history program began last semester. Because this was such a major evet, including a lecture, a panel, and an overnight stay in the slave quarters, and I have so much to say about it, a separate post will be devoted to it. Stay tuned!

Finally, Saturday I volunteered at the Cape Fear Museum’s Mystery at the Museum annual event. This family learning event features the use of forensic science and logic skills to help solve a mystery. The event was a lot of fun and a big hit with kids and parents alike. Children were detectives who worked together with their parents to try to determine who had stolen some food–all of the suspects were animals, with only one being a human. I helped at the station entitled, “What’s My Name?” which had the detectives use a dichotomous key to learn about taxonomy. The detectives learned about various characteristics of different classifications of animals to help them narrow down who their suspect might have been. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the kids (many of whom were wearing fake mustaches!) and learned a little about animals, taxonomy, and logic myself.

Still Standing

A new semester is well underway and that means a new project for the academic year. Still Standing is the working name of a project that will culminate in an exhibit about the history and preservation of slave dwellings and will open at the Bellamy Mansion Museum, which has recently completed the restoration of its slave quarters on the site. As an introduction to the Still Standing project, the program took a field trip to Historic Stagville in Durham, NC. We met there with Jeremiah DeGennaro, the assistant site manager, who showed us where and how the site interprets slavery and African American history. Especially effective were the ways that the tour makes emotional and personal connections to the enslaved people who lived and worked on the plantation. The site is an example of a successful interpretation of this history, an interpretation that inspires thought, dialogue, and maybe even new perspectives on issues of today. A big part of the site’s ability to do this is the remaining slave quarters on site. Unfortunately, slave quarters were not always preserved when a historic house was made a museum. This is one of the issues related to the Still Standing project–the history and preservation of slave quarters tells an interesting story in and of itself about popular perspectives in the time period that many museums were created. Today’s sites are faced with challenges and decisions about interpretation of slave quarters or restoration, recreation, or interpretation of the absence of slave quarters.

One of the slave quarter buildings at Historic Stagville. Photo by author.
One of the slave quarter buildings at Historic Stagville. Photo by author.
Fingerprints left in the bricks made be enslaved workers at Historic Stagville. Photo by author.
Fingerprints left in the bricks made by enslaved workers at Historic Stagville. Photo by author.

The Still Standing project spans both of my courses for the semester, Museum Education and Museum Administration in various forms; however, right now the project is in front-end visitor evaluation stage. We are conducting focus groups with different interest groups who might have a special interest in or insight into the topic, including African American genealogists, preservation professionals, teachers, and students at various levels. I am conducting two focus groups, one with African American community leaders and one with museum and historic site professionals who work at sites that interpret the history of slavery. Slavery is a sensitive topic in public history and one that gets a lot of attention in scholarship, but it is one that is so important to get visitor feedback on and one that is important to engage in conversation with. In addition to the focus groups we are conducting visitor surveys with visitors to the Bellamy Mansion Museum. The results of these conversations and surveys will be described in detail in a visitor study. This visitor study will then inform next semester’s exhibition class.

Last year’s exhibit, Push and Pull, will soon close in Randall Library at UNCW and move to Pender County Public Library’s branch in Burgaw, NC. It is exciting for the exhibit to move on to another location where it will hopefully reach a new and broader public audience, sharing the story of the county’s past and encouraging dialogue about immigration. The exhibit will also hopefully inspire some interesting conversations in St. Paul, Minnesota where Jayd, Leslie,and I will be presenting our poster about the exhibit and the process of curating it with our community advisory committee’s support, input, artifacts, and stories.

I have also started a new job–graduate assistant in the University Archives. I assist the archivist with a variety of things from installing an exhibit, researching and scanning documents for research requests, monitoring environmental dataloggers, and other organizing, sorting, rehousing, and pulling and shelving the collections. The archival collections include a surprising (to me) number of objects. Through this position I am learning a great deal about archival standards and practices as well as the University’s history.

In addition to my courses and assistantship I am also continuing work on my thesis and studying for my comprehensive exams. I am currently researching for my thesis, which seeks to determine what resources the Cape Fear Museum has for the interpretation of women’s and gender history and how it could make use of those resources. I am focusing on what their own collection has to offer and how objects could be approached differently both in collections practices and in exhibition in order to tell a more complete story of women and gender. So far I am going through past exhibit records to learn a baseline of the types of women’s history included in the past and I am looking at the museum’s collection policies and practices to see if there might be ways of illuminating women more through altering the information recorded upon accessioning. Of course, this research is still in flux and conclusions could certainly change. So far I am finding that women have been included in many of the museum’s past exhibits but the category of gender has not necessarily been fully explored. Hopefully, my thesis project can introduce some ideas of why including gender is important and how it might be done. My next step in the thesis research process is to conduct a visitor survey to see what current visitors think about women’s history in the current exhibits and if and what they would like to see more of when it comes to women’s history.

I am excited about both the Still Standing project and my thesis project for their potential and ability to relate history to the present, to inspire tolerance and understanding, and to help others understand the impact of the past on the present. These projects remind me of why I love public history–it’s ability to connect the past to the present. More updates to come!