My Project: Mount Vernon and Monticello: The changing representation at two presidents’ estates

My research looks at Mount Vernon and Monticello and how their interpretation of slavery has changed from the 1980s through the 1990s. I looked at this topic through the professionalization of museums in general and the social changes occurring in American society at the time.

My Inspiration

While I was studying abroad in London, as a history major, I felt obligated to visit the Tower of London. The White Tower, the oldest part of the Tower of London, was holding an exhibit called the Line of Kings. What is really cool about this exhibit is that it has been ongoing since 1652 and over the past 300 years, the presentation of information has changed only slightly. I began to wonder what changes they could have incorporated, based on additional research and new information that has been uncovered since the exhibit was first introduced.  

When I returned to Richmond I wanted to apply this question of change to a more local site. Based off of my experience as an intern at a house museum the previous summer, I gravitated toward that type of institution and chose to look at Mount Vernon and Monticello.

My Process

Initially I wanted to cover the each estate’s entire history in regards to changing interpretation, but I realized that I bit off too much. I narrowed my research to concern the changing interpretation of slavery from the 1980s through the 1990s.

I loved conducting research, but I am also a history major who is truly obsessed with old books and papers. I conducted research at the libraries at both Mount Vernon and Monticello, which are gorgeous. The archivists and librarians at both sites were incredibly helpful. Though I conducted the majority of my research last summer, I have reached out to the librarians at both sites again for more information and they remembered my project and were very helpful.

At times, it was a tedious process. I spent a lot of time looking through boxes and reading documents for key words (i.e. slavery, servant, tour, interpretation, guide). But that’s what research is all about: throwing yourself into a pile of books and combing through them methodically. I loved the topic I had chosen so going through all of the tour outlines and guide materials was actually really fun. I loved being able to see the changes happening with the interpretation of slavery in the documents I was looking at.

My Results

The most important conclusion I came to through my research is that the interpretation of slavery is constantly under revision and scrutiny at both of these estates. Beginning in the late 1980s, Mount Vernon and Monticello began to more actively interpret slave life through tours and education programs. Even today, though, interpretation continues to evolve. For example, Monticello just recently created an app that takes visitors through Mulberry Row, the slave quarters. This app combines oral histories and virtual recreations of the site to bring to life this area of the estate.

The other significant discovery was the impact of professional historians entering museums, as well as a general trend towards more historically minded interpretation at both estates beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This shift brought museums from a more aesthetic to a more accurate and accessible interpretation.

My Mentor

My topic has under gone a lot of changes over the past year, and Dr. Robert Kenzer helped me talk through all of these. Writing a 60-page thesis is daunting. Being able to talk to someone who understood the process and was invested in my success hugely impacted my outlook on the project and its completion. Dr. Kenzer also helped me talk through my graduate school options and, when I was presenting my research, he even took a picture that I could send to my parents.