Most historic sites offer educational programs to help visitors learn more about life in the past. At their best, historic sites also provide a place for understanding, catharsis and even healing, through access to individual stories told in a broader social context. These stories are all the more important to share when they are difficult to tell and hard to hear.
American slavery and its legacy haunt us still today. We go to the places where it happened. We avoid places where it happened. We see the ramifications of slavery in our society; we deny the ramifications of slavery in our society. Artists process old stories and make them new and accessible. Solomon Northup’s “12 Years a Slave” was just made into a major motion picture, seen by millions — and at the same time, two Academy members who voted for it to receive the “Best Picture” award didn’t actually watch the film because they felt it would be “upsetting.”
Historic sites, museums and other cultural centers that discuss human enslavement are well aware of the strong and conflicting emotions those stories evoke. They don’t always know the best way to share the stories or to respond and engage with visitors. But increasingly, institutions are taking their role in the dialogue seriously.
Despite yesterday’s snowstorm, 40 participants made the trip to Historic London Town and Gardens to learn more about “Unsettling Nuances and Uncomfortable Truths,” a workshop co-sponsored by the Maryland Historical Trust and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Participants listened to Azie Mira Dungey, creator of the engaging and provocative web series “Ask a Slave.” Ms. Dungey was followed by Robert Burns of the Mattatuck Museum, who discussed the treatment and eventual burial of an enslaved man, Fortune, whose skeleton was preserved by his owner, a doctor, and kept in the family for many years before they were donated to the museum. The story of Fortune’s Bones and their final internment has inspired both poetry and a musical cantata. The final presentation by Nancy Easterling and Jeanne Pirtle of Sotterley Plantation generated a lively discussion on how the ethnicity of an interpreter or an audience can dramatically affect the way a story is communicated and received.
For those who couldn’t make it, we will post a video of the workshop in the next several days. In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts on interpreting slavery (and other difficult history) in Maryland in the comments section below.