Interpreting Slavery: Public Historians Explore Innovative Approaches

Dana Schaffer, October 2013

The shiny, metallic object stood about four feet high, with a rounded top and ornate stand, and at first the group of historians and graduate students didn't know what to make of it. Initially, it resembled an iron cocoon with knobs and buttons jutting out, but upon closer examination, individual faces began to appear, each one crafted from melted nuts and bolts, some sanded to a shining patina, others with a dull matte finish. The creative production of sculptor Garland Taylor, the "cocoon" was actually a grill, commissioned for display-and use-during the second annual Yale Public History Institute, a summer seminar held this July at Yale University and sponsored by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (GLC). The seminar brought together graduate students, historians, and the staff of public history institutions to explore and develop ways to interpret African American history and culture for the broader public.

For a field in which archival material is often scarce, the use of art and theater for interpretation can be instrumental. To highlight these innovative approaches, the seminar organizers asked Taylor and playwright Addae Moon to develop a work of art to help convey the experience of slavery. Taylor welded metal objects to create a cooking surface for an iron skillet that had been passed down through his family from an enslaved ancestor. Moon used the skillet and the story of Taylor's family to create an interpretive scene, which he then performed for the group. After the performance, seminar participants enjoyed the seasoned pork loin cooked on Taylor's grill.

The seminar, led by Richard Rabinowitz, president of American History Workshop, and the staff of the GLC, included participants from the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, the Owens-Thomas House, Drayton Hall, Crailo State Historic Site, and the National Museum of Denmark, along with 10 graduate students from schools across the country.

An outcome of the GLC's two-year working group, "Slavery and Public History," the seminar was intended to encourage projects that interpret African American history in museums and historic sites, and to develop collaborative relationships among seminar participants and with the NMAAHC. Seminar organizers also hoped to inspire an interest in public history among attending graduate students and to provide them with an opportunity for networking and professional experience. During the six­day program in New Haven, Connecticut, participants attended sessions on historical content and interpretive issues, and spent time researching and developing projects for their respective institutions.

SHAFRArtist Garland Taylor displays the grill he designed for cooking with his family's iron skillet. Participants later enjoyed a delicious pork loin grilled on Taylor's commissioned piece. Pictured from left to right are seminar participants Leonard Curry, Stephanie Krom, James Shinn, Yolanda Richard, Adriana Chira, Carter Hudgins, David Spatz, Garland Taylor, and Ernie Price. Credit: Boyd Harris.

Participants in the seminar represented a wide spectrum of institutions and professions, and the range of projects demonstrated the expanding scope of African American history in public history sites. Projects included reinterpreting a long-term exhibition on the history of 19th-century North Carolina that would integrate the regional African American experience, the incorporation the story of emancipation into a site of traditional military history, two historic plantation houses that hoped to redesign their docent-led tours to convey their house histories through an African American lens, and a plan to redevelop a living history program and exhibit about the Afro-Dutch experience in the New Netherlands colony. A staff member from the National Museum of Denmark also attended the institute in preparation for an exhibition about the Danish colonial past.

Each day of the seminar included a morning session on historical context for the interpretive work of the participating museums and historic sites, including lectures by Robert Harms (Yale Univ.), Leslie Harris (Emory Univ.), Matthew Frye Jacobson (Yale Univ.), Jonathan Holloway (Yale Univ.), and David W. Blight (Yale Univ.). In the afternoons, prominent public historians led discussions about issues of interpreting African American history for the public. Rabinowitz opened the seminar with a discussion about building historical narratives, creating public experiences, and engaging audiences with limited archival resources. In her session on the constraints and urgencies of interpreting African American history in museums, Fath Davis Ruffins, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, noted that the role of the museum is to "translate" academic history for a broader public. Christy Coleman of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar highlighted the significance of audience diversity and methods to achieve it. Following these daily interpretive sessions, participants broke into smaller themed discussions to share their own experiences and questions about training docents, maintaining relevance, the stages of project planning, and other related issues. Later each afternoon, institutional staff worked in teams with the graduate students and seminar presenters to hone their projects and develop interpretive plans.

The week proved to be a transformative one for many of the attendees. When asked about how the seminar will shape his future work on the project at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, Chief of Education and Visitor Services Ernie Price noted, "The profoundness of some of the sessions has actually changed the way I think about the history of slavery and its aftermath. I think how I approach the micro issues in the park will be impacted by my experience at the institute. We spend so much time in our sites we can get tunnel vision when thinking about the evolution of big topics." James Shinn, a graduate student in the history department at Yale University, also expressed how his thinking about public history had changed over the course of the week. He commented, "Although I'm not oblivious to the challenges of fusing scholarship and public history, my most important realization from the institute [is] the promise of such collaboration." To be sure, one of the primary goals of the institute was to promote these kinds of collaborations. In the year following the seminar, the participating museums and historic sites will continue to work on their projects with the aid of seminar staff, fellow participants, and graduate students. Most projects will be completed by 2015 when the NMAAHC is also scheduled to open. 

-Dana Schaffer, the AHA's associate director, is the former assistant director of the Gilder Lehrman Center. Her work at the center included coordination of the Public History Institute.