New approaches to authentic historical narratives: Part 3—The Mountaintop Project at Monticello
With new societal trends and expectations towards historical narratives, museums are rethinking the way they present stories and craft their exhibitions to help visitors understand history differently. We designed a new set of visitor experiences at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s historic house in Virginia with this in mind.
In June 2018, The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit opened at Monticello, in commemoration of the 25-year old Getting Word oral history project which began in 1993 to preserve the histories of the African American families at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation. Sally Hemings was an enslaved woman of mixed race with whom Jefferson had six children. While there is considerable DNA and historical evidence to prove this narrative, it has been the subject of discussion and disagreement for over two centuries.
The museum’s approach to telling this sensitive story involved years of research and building close ties with the descendants of Jefferson and Hemings before beginning work on the exhibition. Based on these relationships and years of curatorial research, they decided that the best way to tell her story was to focus on the words of her son Madison Hemings. He published an autobiographical article "Life Among the Lowly, No. 1" in the Pike County Republican, on March 13, 1873, recounting his mother’s relationship with Jefferson. While he was widely discredited at the time, today, his words are given pride of place in this new exhibition.
Our design approach was influenced by several factors: the sensitivity of Sally Hemings’ story, the fact that we don’t know exactly what she looked like, and the restricted size of the exhibition space, located inside a small room in Monticello’s South Wing, where enslaved individuals worked and lived. We wanted this installation to be about more than facts alone, so we adopted a theatrical-based approach based on storytelling and the words of her son Madison, allowing visitors can feel empathy for her story and consequently, gain a better understanding of her life. Sally’s presence is suggested through the combination of a physical objects, such as a dress, and projections that make her come to life in the space, such as silhouettes of her children, a listing of enslaved individuals, and the Roll of Negroes, written in Jefferson's hand and featuring the names of Sally and her children.
This sober and poignant installation allows visitors to form their own opinions and questions. The fact that the space is left bare, apart from the dress and multimedia audio and visual projects, allows more visitors to experience the installation at a time.
“We didn’t edit or change the order of Madison’s words, but we did choose where to begin the story. We meet Sally during her moment of greatest agency in Paris, when she refuses to go back to Virginia with Thomas Jefferson. He promised the freedom of her children in exchange for her return."
Early on in the design process, we chose to represent Madison Heming’s words visually with projections rather than use a narrator. While respecting the original text, we formatted them into stanzas, ensuring that the most important messages came across. In working with the curatorial team at Monticello, who is so steeped in the details of the history, we were also able to bring a fresh, neutral perspective to this important slice of American history, as Canadians without any direct personal connection to the story at hand.
“Institutions in post-colonial North America are starting to abandon the singular dominant white male perspective, allowing other voices tell their own stories.”
Strategy and Business Development Manager
This decision to work with Madison’s account is a perfect example of museums today moving away from conveying a singular institutional voice, towards the inclusion of personal narratives. Whereas an old-fashioned museum approach would have PhDs historians directing the content, today much more place is given to first-person accounts. This is something that we encourage in our work with curators, facilitating the creation of exhibits as places of exchange and conversation. This trend of getting people to talk to each other more in the galleries applies not only to guides with visitors, but between visitors themselves. Amongst these multiple perspectives, contradictory opinions and questions will arise. This is something that the Monticello curators not only expect, but encourage.
“There has been a huge shift from credibility through study or certification, towards credibility through human experience. You can’t tell the story of somebody else’s history anymore.”
Strategy and Business Development Manager
We feel privileged to have worked with a curatorial team and institution that took such an in-depth and authentic approach to telling Sally Hemings’ story. In an era when it can be difficult to talk about race in America, museums are becoming places not only of fact, but of experience. In this same vein, if we think of the recently opened Legacy Museum lynching memorial in Alabama for example, challenging all the towns and cities where lynchings have occurred to come and collect their markers, it’s clear that the exhibition is but one part of a much larger movement and intention. It’s a memorial, but it’s also a call to action. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation is continuing the conversation through ongoing guided tours and programming about slavery at Monticello. We look forward to seeing how visitors react and interpret this very personal story with such a deep resonance and impact on American history.
This concludes our 3-part series examining how we work with museums in adopting new approaches to tell historical stories. If you haven’t read them yet, check out Part 1, about our creative process at the Alaska Gallery in the Anchorage Museum, and Part 2, about our guiding principles in working on the Canadian History Hall.