Recently, UMass Amherst Public History Professor Marla Miller interviewed Jessie MacLeod (M.A., 2012), Assistant Curator, Historic Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, about their new slavery exhibit “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon” (October 1, 2016 – September 30, 2018 ) and how her education and training in the UMass Amherst Public History Program prepared her for this challenging project.
MM: Jessie, you’ve served as the lead curator for the exhibition “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” Tell us a little bit about the exhibition’s history. When did the staff start planning for this?
JM: Since our museum facility opened in 2006, we have had a series of temporary exhibitions. In 2013, staff voted on what the topic of next show should be, and slavery was the unanimous choice. Slavery wasn’t a new topic—Mount Vernon staff have been doing research on slavery for decades, and it is part of the interpretation in the historic area—but this was the first large-scale exhibition on the subject.
In 2014, about a year into the planning, we decided to expand the exhibit from one 1,100 square foot gallery to the entire museum: seven galleries encompassing almost 5,000 square feet. Expanding the footprint was critical because we had so much information and so many powerful stories to tell.
MM: Tell us a little bit about the exhibition itself. What were some of the project’s biggest challenges?
JM: The exhibition explores how the lives of George Washington and the men, women, and children enslaved at Mount Vernon were deeply interconnected. We examine the labor, living conditions, and personal lives of enslaved people, as well as Washington’s changing views on slavery. Visitors see original furnishings, artwork, archaeological artifacts, documents, and interactives that help interpret these topics. The show opened on October 1 and will be up through the fall of 2018.
This exhibit came with many (many!) challenges. Some were logistical: converting the gallery space and writing, designing, and producing the labels was extremely complicated and required constant coordination between a team of Mount Vernon staff and outside contractors. The fact that we were converting pre-existing galleries meant dealing with spatial constraints (we could not significantly change the size or shape of any rooms). Our fantastic development team successfully raised $750,000 for the exhibit, but we still faced some budgetary challenges that forced us to scale back or eliminate certain ideas (like using a lower-quality material for graphics or reusing cases from past exhibits).
Other challenges were more intellectual. Mount Vernon is unusually well-documented for an eighteenth-century plantation site, so we had to make difficult choices about which information and objects to include, even after expanding the exhibit’s footprint. Language also proved challenging: slavery is, rightly, a very sensitive and emotional subject. We spent many hours selecting words that would be simultaneously honest, respectful, and engaging to diverse audiences.
Another challenge sprang from a specific design question: our desire to ensure that visitors felt the presence of enslaved people in the galleries, even though (in most cases) we don’t have images of them or documents written by them. We had many long discussions about the best solution (mannequins? conjectural drawings?) and eventually landed on the concept of life-sized silhouettes. We liked that silhouettes evoke a human presence while omitting certain details, suggesting information that remains unknown. Even after choosing this concept, we went through several iterations (and focus groups) before we were satisfied with the design. Each of the silhouettes represents a unique individual from Mount Vernon and is paired with an interactive touchscreen that allows visitors to explore that person’s biography and family tree.
Finally, this project had many stakeholders with differing perspectives: descendants of enslaved people, our board, academic advisors, donors, Mount Vernon staff, and others. The challenge of balancing the interests and expectations of those parties was constantly on our mind.
MM: How has the exhibition been received? What are the most common visitor responses, comments or questions so far?
JM: I am thrilled to say that (so far) the response has been extremely positive, even from a wide range of visitors. The opening event on October 1 was very moving, as many of the descendants we partnered with saw the full exhibit for the first time. We also welcomed a number of scholars for a conference on slavery shortly after the opening, and we were delighted to receive encouraging feedback from them, as academics can be a hard audience to please!
We have a comment book at the end of the last gallery, and a number of visitors have written thoughtful remarks. Many expressed appreciation for the detailed information (“Very interesting and thought-provoking. Learned a lot!”), sadness at the reality of slavery (“A very painful journey, but one we need to take”), and gratitude that enslaved people’s contributions are being honored (“Thank you for giving adequate voice to the voiceless of General Washington’s estate”).
MM: Has the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture had an effect on your visitation, or the questions and expectations visitors bring to the exhibit?
JM: We have seen some traffic from those who came to Washington for the new Smithsonian, though the bulk of our guests remain those who attend as an auxiliary part of their Mount Vernon visit. Though coincidental, the close proximity of our opening to the Smithsonian’s has certainly helped our exhibit become part of a larger movement of museums bringing new histories to light. We also offer something a little different—a very local story, told at the site where it happened—which complements the expansive national narrative at the Smithsonian.
MM: How did your training at in the UMass Public History program prepare you for this work?
JM: So many parts of my training were instrumental to this process. The many group projects in public history classes primed me for the collaborative nature of exhibition planning. My knowledge of public history best practices helped me consider the exhibit’s many stakeholders and ensure that we involved them in the process. Inviting a multitude of voices and “sharing authority” helped us recognize problems with our approach that we hadn’t considered. Specifically, meeting individually with many descendants and holding focus groups with varying audiences (descendants, public school educators, supporters of a local black history museum) proved invaluable.
I also credit the UMass program with emphasizing the power of oral history. As part of the exhibit development process, we began conducting oral histories with descendants of those enslaved at Mount Vernon. Excerpts from seven interviews appear in a video in the exhibit, while the full recordings are available to researchers in our archive. We hope the project will continue beyond the show’s two-year run as we forge new relationships.
MM: With the exhibit now open, what are you working on now?
JM: There are still some exhibit-related tasks to complete: I am providing tours to special groups, working with IT to fix some bugs with the interactive technology (as there always are!), and expanding the exhibit-related content on our website. We will also rotate paper documents every six months to minimize light exposure, so I will be selecting and writing labels for those items.
Beyond the exhibit, I am returning to more general curatorial duties, including more work in the Mansion. I will be organizing an upcoming room refurnishing project, cataloguing our print collection, coordinating loans and acquisitions, answering inquiries from the public, and various other projects related to the collection.
MM: Thanks, Jessie! Good luck with all the work, and we hope to stay connected, in both Virginia and Massachusetts!