Variations on a Theme: African American History at 3 Museums

About 30 minutes into the tour, my parents started giving me the side eye. That look that says “Why on earth did you think this would be a good idea?” and “How much longer must we suffer?” I avoided their gaze. I wasn’t too thrilled either.

We were at the Whitney Plantation, just outside of New Orleans. It was the last day of our trip, and the Whitney had been on my list of “must-dos” I had read the articles about how the Whitney was putting the story of the enslaved front and center. I had read the articles about how the Whitney was becoming a leader in the history museum field as we struggle to share and interpret the history of slavery. As a director and a historian, I felt like I really needed to check this all out.

In a way, it was fitting that I visited the Whitney this year. In February, I had the distinct privilege of visiting the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. In some ways, it wasn’t a great museum experience. After all, it was wall to wall people! I got hit twice in the ankles by a wheelchair. It was hard to see everything just because of the crowds. But I couldn’t be upset. After all, it was clear that the people I was surrounded by were reading, learning, connecting—and probably hadn’t spent a lot of time in museums. The narrative put the African American experience at the center. It wasn’t just about slavery and oppression, but identity and stretching boundaries. There was a huge range of artifacts, and the curators didn’t shy away from anything.

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A slave cabin in the center of a gallery. One of my DHV coworkers helped dissemble it before it was moved to DC.

For me, the most moving moment was as I was waiting in line to see Emmett Till’s casket. There’s a small room in front of the room containing the casket, where news footage of the funeral is played. Standing in that anteroom were two women, who I presumed to be mother and daughter. They were leaning on each other, watching the video, softly crying. It was a moment that wouldn’t have been possible without the museum.

In May, I flew into Memphis for a work trip and headed straight to the National Civil Rights Museum. I had first visited back in 1997 as part of a college orientation trip. That was long before the new building and the inclusion of the boarding house where the shots that killed Martin Luther King Jr were fired. I don’t have many firm memories of that visit, but I remember liking it.

I know they just went through a massive reinterpretation, but I’m not sure exactly what all was new. Again, they did a fabulous job of putting the African American experience front and center. They also had some powerful artifacts, including a bombed out bus that moved me to tears.

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Powerful artifacts, mixed with lots and lots of individual voices from those that were active in the Movement.

So, heading to the Whitney felt like a natural next stop on this year’s tour of African American history museums. And there were aspects of it that were very good. But I have difficulty recommending it.

Perhaps I should start with what I liked? The tour did start out well. The first stop was an African American church, built after Emancipation, and moved to the Whitney Plantation a few years ago. Inside, were a collection of statues of children, representing the hundreds of children born into slavery at the Whitney. There was a nice introductory video and a discussion of the WPA slave narratives. The docent discussed how those narratives captured the voices of slaves, but is almost exclusively memories of a childhood in slavery.

We proceeded next to a memorial, listing all of the known names of the people brought to the Whitney during the slave trade years. And this is where the tour began to fall apart. We spent over 20 minutes at one side of the monument. And then he said “now let’s go to the other side of the monument.” Another 20 minutes talking about all of the known names of people born into slavery on the plantation. Then 20 minutes at the next memorial. Ten at the next. And then we finally got to see another building.

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The entire tour was 2 hours—and about half of it was spent at the memorials. These memorials are important, but do we really need to spend that much time at them? Especially in the New Orleans heat? On the day we were there, we had intermittent rain. They provided umbrellas, but the docent also made no moves to hurry the tour along or make any adjustments due to the weather. In the heat, this would be almost unbearable. Definitely not something to inspire a good visitor experience that would allow minds to be opened for learning.

And then there was the tour guide himself. He was passionate. He certainly knew his history. But he was also incredibly repetitive. He did a good job of pointing out that slavery is as much an economic system as a racist system, but he said it over and over and over again. An hour into a tour, I think everyone more than understood.

But the thing that bothered me the most is that even as they gave names to the enslaved, they didn’t give them much else. There were no stories of life on the plantation. No stories of how those that were enslaved struggled to live their lives within such harsh boundaries—how they made families and traditions in spite of their enslavement. There was no mention of any personal agency.  All of the complexities surrounding slavery were obscured by an overwhelming agenda.

As we all know, tour guides can make or break a museum visit. I don’t know if a different tour guide would have been less repetitive. However, he was certainly working within parameters set by the institution. The memorials are important, but a quick explanation of them and then allowing people to return after the tour would be far more effective. No guided tour, especially outside, and especially with few spots to sit, should be much more than an hour. Attention spans waver. Feet get tired. With my mom’s knee issues, she can’t stand for too long in one place—and there was a lot of standing in one place. It was an incredibly disappointing and frustrating experience.

For those that do want to explore the complex relationships on a plantation between enslaved and slaveowner, I would highly recommend the Laura Plantation. It was our first tourist stop when we arrived in New Orleans, chosen because it had been managed by four generations of women. They did an amazing job of describing slave life and pointing out all the complexities. They gave us time to pause and reflect, but also kept us moving. Our tour guide had passion, but never let that passion overtake the pace of the tour. All three of us (parents and myself) loved the tour, felt like we learned something, and were challenged by some of that information.

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Laura Plantation

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One of the several extant slave cabins at the Laura Plantation. As was true at many plantations in southern Louisiana, these cabins were lived in through the 1970s by workers. Most of whom were descendants of those that were enslaved on the same land.

African American history is a complex subject that has long been ignored by major museums. There is some stellar interpretation out there, but we have to continue to question it just like we do any other interpretation. In this age where nuance and complexity are getting bulldozed by loud voices shouting, I commend those organizations that are holding fast to telling the complete, messy history of our past.

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About Melissa

Professional history and museum nerd, among other things. I've worked at Dallas Heritage Village since 2004, first as the educator, and became Executive Director in 2014.
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