Driving South: What Museums Owe Us
By Cami Dominguez
Growing up in South Florida, I had never been further north than Tallahassee, or further south than D.C. What I know about Southern culture is inflected with South Florida’s peculiarities – everybody loves plantains and very few of us speak just English. I drove down the East Coast, from Massachusetts to Ft. Lauderdale this last week with my dad. Mostly, I sat in the car, driving or trying to distract myself, since there wasn’t much to see. The route we took cut across long stretches of unpunctuated farmland and the same highway-side chain stores you can expect to find driving through any region of the US. Throughout my education, and especially over the last couple of years, I have built up a mythic, larger than life, and not entirely flattering image of the American South. This imaginary landscape clashed against the actual tedium and monotony of my view from I-95. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. Confederate flags? Churches? I saw both. I also saw the city of Savannah, which was so beautiful I could barely wrap my head around it. The Spanish moss and manicured plazas reminded me of St. Augustine, Florida, where my family and I took weekend trips when I was growing up. Both are colonial cities that have taken great care to maintain their visual and architectural legacies. In St. Augustine, we toured an old Spanish fort. If you stop in Savannah, you can tour the Wormsloe plantation.
This idea that you can tour plantations dawned on me somewhere over the Savannah River as I browsed “nearby attractions” on Google Maps. My brain responded by screaming, I don’t ever want to go to a plantation. It struck me as absurd that anyone could want to go on a plantation tour, but many do, happily. In Elementary and Middle school, I had been on school trips to Mount Vernon and Monticello, where I remember placidly touring the grounds with the rest of my schoolmates. Was slavery taught to us on those trips? I began a mind-numbing and obsessive Google search on my phone from the passenger seat. With nothing else to do, I devoted at least fifty miles of that car ride to Googling reviews of plantation tours.
If it is hard to imagine a way that cultural institutions could help the public reckon with slavery, it may just be because until very recently, there were only a handful of minor museums that expressly addressed the experiences of the enslaved. This country does a hell of a job glossing over – and literally whitewashing – the history of slavery. I read accounts of a docent at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site who would show up to give Christmas tours dressed as Vivien Leigh, and a 2017 travel blog that referred to planters as having “established an enslaved community.” Just when it began to seem like spending my day on a plantation tour might have all the historical and moral weight of picnicking under a Confederate monument for the afternoon, I read this account of a visit to the McLeod Plantation on James Island near Charleston:
“ The plantation features an empty big house and the tour does not even set foot into this building. Instead, extremely well-trained tour guides, equipped with iPads for pictures, lead tours literally around the outside of the house to the six remaining, original slave cabins. The guide personalizes the story of slave suffering, including their work and day-to-day life. The slave cabins not only tell the story of the slaves, but also their descendants. Most impressive about McLeod Plantation is the fact that descendants continued to reside here well into the 1990s, despite the lack of running water and innumerable building code violations. The story of freedmen, freedwomen, and post-emancipation suffering within Southern society during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era are impressively illustrated by the home firebombed in 1954. The charring is still visible on the floor.” (https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/2016/12/plantation-tour-disaster-teaching-slavery-memory-public-history/#_ftn1)
It is worth noting that the McLeod Plantation remains an anomaly among the thousands of plantations that operate as cultural institutions and purport to teach this country’s history. This selective blindness is one site that American artist Fred Wilson mines through his interdisciplinary practice. I heard Wilson give a talk at the University of Massachusetts this Fall in which he discussed how he came to work with “found” material sourced from the collections of museums like the Maryland Historical Society. The key to Wilson’s work lies in the way he unearths items from museums’ own collections to show how inadequately these institutions play the role of safekeeping and exhibiting our cultural heritage. Wilson’s interventions often draw their power when they work within the established visual tropes museums employ. A glass case in the “Mining the Museum” show contains an ornate silver tea set, and a set of tiny iron restraints used on enslaved children. The label reads, simply, “METALWORK 1793 – 1880.” In his writing, Kerr Houston summarizes Wilson’s project, “Quietly but insistently, Wilson was pressuring the idea of a master narrative, and challenging the museum’s role as a nominally objective arbiter.” ((http://www.bmoreart.com/2017/05/how-mining-the-museum-changed-the-art-world.html))
In 2016 the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in D.C., as a branch of the Smithsonian. There is a $100M plan to build Charleston’s International African American Museum on the site where many enslaved Africans took their first steps on American soil (https://thegrio.com/2018/03/20/charleston-african-american-history-museum/). This is a time to demand not only the inclusion of enslaved people’s histories in our cultural institutions, but a perspective on these histories that helps the public to dismantle myths and fantasies that uphold white supremacy in this country and enable enduring injustices. It is a time to also challenge, as Fred Wilson has challenged, the ability of cultural institutions to adequately hold space for alternate histories, and to create our own avenues for representation and understanding.