This dissertation examines the development of historic house museums in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the present to unravel the complex relationship between public presentations of slavery and popular perceptions of the institution. In conducting the research for this project, I examined the historic and contemporary public programming at nineteen separate museums. This sample of museums includes both publicly funded and private sites in both the North and South. By bringing together a diverse group of museums, this project examines national trends alongside regional traditions as well as the role of organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service, and a host of private institutions in determining different interpretive foci.
This project represents the intersection of two different historiographies. The first of these is the literature on American memory and tradition that examines the different trends in the relationship between Americans and their history. Specifically, this project is concerned with the place of race in American history and memory. This project builds on existing works, such as David Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, by examining the way in which race and slavery have been historically represented outside of the context of the Civil War.1 In this way, it is able to draw conclusions about the role of slavery within a larger narrative of American history.
In addition to the historiography of race and American memory, this project also intersects with the historiography of museums by examining how different institutions have responded to the increased incorporation of slavery into the American narrative. As educational sites that rely on public patronoga, museums have a more difficult task than the historian who aims to create an objective narrative for a small audience of academics and students or the movie or television producer who abandons a commitment to the facts in favor of an emotional or entertaining story.
For more than a century, the presentation of slavery in museums was shaped by the need to promote a celebratory narrative of American history and an understanding of the past that unified white Americans. Any mentions of slavery reflected the perspective of scholars such as U.B. Phillips and William Dunning who argued that inherently inferior slaves benefited from the benevolent institution. In the last several decades, as a consequence of the civil rights movement and the rise of the new social history, museums have begun to address slavery more openly and more critically.
Each museum faced different challenges as it tried to incorporate slavery into their interpretations. These challenges offer insight into the place of slavery within concepts of regional and national identity. Many southern museums, for example, have had to strike a balance between the difficult subject of slavery and idyllic narratives of the Old South, a compromise which is often counterproductive. Northern museums have had to re-imagine significant portions of both their site history and regional history, abandoning the once-dominant narrative of an abolitionist North in favor of one that recognizes the varied and multiple ways in which northerners benefited from slavery. Organrzations with a national focus, such as the National Park Service and National Trust for Historic Preservation, have tried to use their museums to unify American history by merging the experiences of many diverse groups into one narrative. Last, the homes of the founding fathers have had a particularly difficult time reconciling their subject's slaveholding with a celebratory narrative of the nation's founding. Despite these individual challenges, the net result of this process has been similar, creating interpretations that focus on traditional American history and give short shrift to the enslaved population. In many ways therefore, Americans are still wrestling with the place of slavery within a fundamentally celebratory conception of American history.
1David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).