The Life of Sally Hemings
LocationMonticello, Virginia, USA
ClientThomas Jefferson's Monticello
Surface area1,520 sq ft / 141 m²
The Mountaintop Project is a landmark initiative by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to unearth the history of slavery at Monticello. The Foundation has worked to restore spaces never seen before by the public where members of the enslaved community lived and worked. Among these, an exposed kitchen revealing an archeological dig and a reconstructed textile workshop will shed light on the role this community played in American history. For the first time, visitors will also see the home the third president shared with his wife Martha before the mansion was built.
GSM was enlisted to add a layer of context to exhibition spaces in the South Wing and on Mulberry Row. As part of this endeavor, we created an immersive installation to tell the story of Sally Hemings in the room where she is thought to have lived and raised her children.
Sally Hemings is a historical figure enslaved by Thomas Jefferson who fathered all six of her children. Her story has been interpreted in numerous ways, usually centered on her relationship with Thomas Jefferson. This exhibition is about giving Sally her space and retelling the story through her perspective. With so few artifacts to glean from, how can we tell Sally Hemings’ complex story in a compelling, yet factual way?
A period dress reproduction was built to embody Sally Hemings’ presence in the room and connect the installation to other exhibition spaces at Monticello. With no historical paintings or pictures of Sally, we did not want to interpret her features. Instead we based the dress on historical evidence about the fabrics and styles she wore in Paris and Virginia. Multimedia projections bring the dress to life, suggesting that Sally is with us in her room.
To help connect visitors to Sally Hemings, we devised an approach grounded in theatricality and facts about her life. Why theatre? Because of its ability to conjure emotion and meaning from the said to the unsaid, and the known to the unknown. Inspired by factual evidence and testimonials, we explored key moments in Sally’s life and created an installation that focuses on her as a matriarch who sacrificed her own freedom for her children’s.
History has left us no written words from Sally Hemings. But the little we know about her speaks volumes. Short of Sally’s own words, we couldn’t find a better way to honor her legacy than to draw from her son Madison’s recollections of his mother. As we explored his memoir, we found true gems that reveal rich details about Sally’s everyday life and her role in her family’s history.
“The room has a strange status — not quite a historical artifact, not entirely a shrine, more like an architectural prod to the conscience.”
Philip Kennicott, Washington Post
To provide visitors with an intimate experience of Sally Hemings’ life, we used a blend of video, animation, sound, and object theatre. Visitors are immersed in Sally’s environment as they travel with her through space and time, reliving moments shared with her children and some of the major challenges she faced.
Inspiring a conversation
The Mountaintop Project, a major milestone at Monticello, sparks a national dialogue about the foundational role its enslaved community played in the country’s history. "The Life of Sally Hemings" allows the public to step into her room and gain a deeper understanding of the significance of her powerful legacy.