Whose history?

New Museum Theory and Practice, published in 2006, is more theory (and by that I mean Theory, in an academic sense) than practice, and so not really what I’m looking for to fill the gaps in my literature review. But one piece in particular struck a chord. Eric Gable wrote a chapter entitled How we Study History Museums: Or Cultural Studies at Monticello. It sells itself as an ethnography, studying the social culture in and around the historic home of Thomas Jefferson, and a time when it was in transition from telling a story that was exclusively about Jefferson as author of the Declaration of Independence, to a more inclusive story telling that spoke of a working, slave-owning estate and (in particular) Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings, a mulatto slave.

The piece speaks of the conflict between museums’ implicit role as creators and communicators of state ideology, and the new (though not so new, now) “bottom up” history. A lot of what I read resonates with my experiences in the National Trust.

But it was the very last sentence that really hit home, because it reflects the current arguments and discussion around the Confederate Flag after the white supremacist attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

As a result Monticello, perhaps because of its desire for consensus, ends up producing two parallel landscapes that together add up to the terrain of modern democracy: a visible landscape of shared knowledge without controversy or conflict, and an invisible landscape of suspicion, mistrust and paranoia.

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