Lives Bound Together: Recovering the Stories of the Enslaved People of Mount Vernon

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In Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked on George Washington’s Virginia plantation home in the 18th century are explored alongside Washington’s “evolving” views on slavery. There is a physical exhibition on display at the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center at Mount Vernon; the website constitutes the exhibit’s online presence, found here: https://www.mountvernon.org/plan-your-visit/calendar/exhibitions/lives-bound-together-slavery-at-george-washingtons-mount-vernon/#-. The project was the result of a unanimous 2013 vote by museum staff when deciding what their next temporary exhibition should be focused on.

While the brick and mortar exhibit tells the story of slavery at Mount Vernon using physical artifacts, drawings, paintings, maps, and documents, its online incarnation interprets the meaning and significance of these resources using technological methods, such as high-quality digital images, video, quizzes, downloadable educational content, and hyperlinks to more in-depth information found in its digital archives (such as its digital encyclopedia.) The physical exhibit exists as an auxiliary portion of the greater site tour offered at Mount Vernon; it is included with the fee paid to visit the Mansion House, grounds, and other areas. The Lives Bound Together website is therefore a digital extension of this auxiliary exhibit, designed to provide further educational and cultural opportunities for those people interested in Washington’s views on slavery and the lives of the people he and his family held in bondage during and after his lifetime. This includes visitors to the physical site, those who are interested in the exhibit but are unable to visit it in person, educators seeking learning resources on Washington and slavery at Mount Vernon, and students in search of similar resources for scholarly work.

A search for “George Washington” or “Mount Vernon” in conjunction with “slavery” returns the website for this exhibit at the top of the results, so anyone interested in these subjects will be sure to come across it. I do think the physical exhibit would benefit from a promotion of the online site within the physical one; not everyone visiting the site and wanting to learn more will realize the website exists. Those scholars and educators familiar with Washington and Mount Vernon would be sure to come across the site in the process of their research; the online exhibition is linked to and promoted throughout Mount Vernon’s website.

Construction of the Lives Bound Together exhibit was funded by a number of entities: the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (which is the non-profit organization that holds Mount Vernon in trust and has since it purchased the home in February 1860), as well as four philanthropic organizations and donors who contributed money towards the project. The lead curator of the exhibit, Jessie Macleod, acknowledges the creative difficulties associated with such a diverse group of interested parties, stating in a 2017 interview about the exhibit, “This project had many stakeholders with differing perspectives: descendants of enslaved people, our board, academic advisors, donors, Mount Vernon staff, and others.”[1] A Google search into the identities of the contributing donors revealed that most of them are white males from the American South, and I also found a recent picture of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. With this information in mind, I began to understand what Macleod meant by “differing perspectives.”

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These varied perspectives, and the need for those at Mount Vernon to be able to acknowledge Washington’s duality as a slaveholder and a human being with a conscience clearly drove the creation of both the physical exhibit and its online presence. While visiting the exhibit in person creates an experience that is tailored by those who created and funded it, visiting the digital site allows users to decide what and who to learn more about. The wealth of resources within the digital archives at Mount Vernon make it possible for visitors to follow a trail beginning with one artifact or image that has the potential to lead them in countless directions. The physical exhibition, which I have visited, is spread out over the entire space of the Education Center at Mount Vernon and is certainly innovative in its presentation and goals.

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My prior research and reading about Washington and slavery meant that I arrived at Mount Vernon the day of my visit with clear expectations as to what I hoped to see. I was impressed and excited about Mount Vernon’s decision to create such an extensive and in-depth memorial to the enslaved people who had called it home, and I recommend a visit there to anyone with an interest in the lives of 18th century enslaved people and/or George Washington’s history in relation to slavery. However, the experience left me with many questions that could not be answered by the finite resources on display at the physical exhibit. Where, specifically, were the physical descriptions of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population found? How did the bonded men and women living there feel about George Washington and his family? What was being left out of the exhibit, which clearly had a dual purpose: to tell the stories of the enslaved while demonstrating Washington’s ambivalence regarding the institution (and maybe, obliquely, to insinuate that had things gone just a little differently, he might have ended slavery in America. Maybe.)

Which is where the digital exhibit steps up.  At first glance, its offerings seem somewhat basic: high-resolution, downloadable images of the artifacts and pictures contained within the physical exhibit, an animated video summarizing the “big idea” of the exhibit as well as a video compilation of oral history interviews with descendants of Mount Vernon’s enslaved men and women, a gallery of the silhouetted images of a select group of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population, a quiz on Washington and slavery, and a link to purchase a print version of the exhibit’s catalog. Where the digital exhibit really shines is in the links embedded within its sections that allow users to further pursue a topic or resource. Clicking on any of the entries in the section dedicated to the stories of specific enslaved people leads to a more in-depth description of the man or woman, complete with hyperlinks to other entries related to the person and his or her history. Each entry also features a list of resources at the bottom, which are also clickable and often lead to a high-quality image of the resource in question (such as a letter or document that Washington wrote, or the image of an artifact found in the slave quarters.) An example of this can be found here, within “Doll’s” entry: https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/doll/.

The enhanced abilities of the digital exhibit provide the “hook” that Beverly Serrell demonstrates as being a necessity for public humanities projects in “Exhibit Labels;” visitors are given introductory information to entice them, and are then able to “construct” their own experiences and pursue further scholarship on the topics via other resources (i.e. the digital encyclopedia, or by viewing the documents linked to within the main entries.) [2] Users are also easily able to blog about their experiences or information that they encounter on the site; each page has a button that creates a social media post incorporating the current page the visitor is viewing. This ostensibly allows users to share their thoughts with the people at Mount Vernon, as the museum and staff maintain an active social media presence.

While the physical exhibit offers the benefit of being able to view the artifacts and images in person, situated within the actual environment of Mount Vernon, its digital presence fills in the blanks left behind by the curated exhibit at the museum. Questions that I asked myself at Mount Vernon, such as “what about women like Martha Washington’s former maid Ona Judge, who ran away and weren’t freed in Washington’s will?” are able to be answered through the perusal of online resources that are unavailable when visiting the exhibit in person. Judge’s entry in the digital encyclopedia, found here: https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/ona-judge/ is linked to within her entry on the main page, and it contains a wealth of resources related to her story, such as links to documents from which her story is derived, images of artifacts related to her, such as the newspaper advertisement Washington placed when she escaped, and a link to purchase Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s book on Judge, Never Caught. A list of resources and publications related to Judge and Washington’s enslaved population can be found at the bottom of her entry.

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I have often wished for the ability to “click” on artifacts or displays while visiting physical history exhibits for more information, and while it’s now possible to look up information on your mobile device while visiting museums, this option is obviously not optimal. Doing so removes you from the intended experience of your visit and does not always lead to information or resources that are relevant to your query. Being able to “visit” Lives Bound Together virtually not only provides the “missing” informational elements of the physical exhibit, it also creates an opportunity to “curate” your own version of the exhibit using the resources available in Mount Vernon’s prolific digital archives. Furthermore, many of the encyclopedia pages related to the “big idea” of the project, such as the main entry on Washington’s views on slavery, have links to downloadable lesson plans that teachers can use in the classroom. These are all resources that are clearly not available when visiting the site in person.

From a user’s perspective, the site is polished and easy to navigate, although it can sometimes be confusing when trying to determine which elements are part of the main Lives Bound Together offerings and which are supplementary. There are several dead links, such as the one leading to the quiz on Washington and slavery, and the link to purchase the print version of the exhibit catalog. The videos are embedded within the main page of the exhibit, which could potentially cause issues for those with slower connections. There are some resources that would benefit from an explanation of its value, such as the ability to search the exhibit’s catalog of artifacts by a specific list of colors, an option found at the bottom of each artifact’s entry. My main concern with the website is its structure, which seems to have been designed to “balance out” Washington’s identity as a slaveholder. The very first image you see when you visit the main page is one of the Washington “family,” which features a representation of what is likely either of Washington’s valets, Billy Lee or Christopher Sheels.

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There is no explanation as to the identity of the servant or context provided that demonstrates the image’s relevance to one of the “big ideas” of the project: the closely intertwined lives of the Washington family and the people they enslaved. Throughout the digital exhibit, information about the enslaved men, women, and children of Mount Vernon is alternated with quotes and “evidence” of Washington’s “evolving” views on slavery; huge sections of the main page are dedicated to quotes by Washington demonstrating the doubt and guilt related to slavery that he was experiencing towards the end of his life. While one quote by Edmund Parker pertains to the feelings of an enslaved man regarding his bondage, most are designed to support the idea of Washington’s “transformation” from a slaveholder to an enlightened man who freed his slaves. One section featuring text from a 1999 symposium on Washington and slavery bizarrely lists quotations from those formerly enslaved by the Washington family who “preferred” being enslaved, suggesting that those men and women were more “generous” towards Washington than women like Ona Judge, who remained “bitter” towards him until the end of her life.[3]

I fully understand the reasons behind the choices made to include these sections and quotations. Mount Vernon obviously needs to be able to portray Washington as the flawed but essentially honorable and thoughtful Father of Our Country; it would be hard to sell tickets to Mount Vernon if they exhibited him in a one-dimensional manner that brooked no discussion about his diverse views (nor would that be accurate.) The “big idea” of the exhibit is stated as being a dual effort to tell the stories of the enslaved population of Mount Vernon and their close ties to the lives of the Washington family while providing insight into George Washington’s “evolving” views on slavery. This digital exhibit certainly accomplishes that. But what I consider to be its greatest value are the digital resources it makes available within the “visitor” experience that allow us to decide for ourselves what we believe about who Washington was, and how the lives of the enslaved men and women that lived and worked on his plantation were affected by his beliefs and actions.

[1] https://umasshistory.wordpress.com/2017/02/09/lives-bound-together-slavery-at-george-washingtons-mount-vernon-an-interview-with-public-history-alumna-jessie-macleod/

[2] Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015.

[3] https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/slavery/the-only-unavoidable-subject-of-regret/

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3 Responses to Lives Bound Together: Recovering the Stories of the Enslaved People of Mount Vernon

  1. Noelle Lorraine Williams says:

    I really appreciated in your review the way that website is seen as both a visiting companion and also an opportunity for further research. By integrating the Serrell you successfully make a contention that the website is an extension of the exhibition space, not just a separate aspect of the learning experience. I think you did a solid job of teasing out some of the white supremacist and racialist narratives that are embodied in both the web presence and the actual exhibition as well.

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  2. Great post and thorough review! Because of the work in one of my other courses, Public Histories of Slavery, I am rather familiar with this exhibit and the Mount Vernon website. I agree with your assertion that the online exhibit works as a great supplement to the physical one and that they are both perfect manifestations of the exhibit’s “Big Idea.” But, in my opinion, the exhibit’s express goal—to make plain Washington’s changing views on slavery and detail the lives of the people he enslaved—is rather unsettling. As you mentioned, both the physical site and the online site emphasize his ever-evolving views on slavery. But at times this idea seems to be touted incessantly as a way to obfuscate readers and downplay the fact that he never actually freed any of his bondspeople until after his death. Obviously, Mount Vernon’s overwhelmingly white stakeholders and leadership were concerned with sullying his name and legacy in anyway. But that fear about negatively impacting how Washington is venerated continues to be harmful to another set of stakeholders—the descendants of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community and Black Americans in general. Attempting to balance Washington’s legacy as a “hero” with the fact that he was a lifelong enslaver insinuates that the site believes his role as an enslaver should not be a significant part of his public memory while simultaneously trivializing the horrors of enslavement. It is undeniably a beautifully designed website/online exhibit; however, what it claims to do and what it actually does as far as offering insight into the complexity and texture of the enslaved population’s experiences are in contradiction.

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    • HistoryGrrlNJ says:

      Hi Sydney!
      Thank you for your response! Your comment in class tonight that you hoped you hadn’t come across as too critical when responding to my post made me decide to go back and reread it, because I read it somewhat quickly shortly after you posted it, and I missed the fact that you had gotten the impression that our reactions to the “big idea” of the exhibit were rather different. I just wanted to clarify that I enthusiastically agree with everything you said about its obfuscation and contradiction and the harm they’re doing to the descendants of the enslaved people of Mount Vernon. When I commented in class last week on my disapproval of Mount Vernon’s decision to “balance” the Lives Bound Together exhibit with what are pretty clearly excuses for Washington’s having been a slaveholder, Mary suggested I cover the site for my project review, which is why I chose it. Just for reference, I’ve posted my comment from last week in response to Melissa’s remarks on the Whitney Plantation, which is what got me started on this topic to start with.

      [[Melissa,
      I felt the same when I visited the “Enslaved People at Mount Vernon” exhibit at Mount Vernon in Virginia last summer. While I was happy that the powers that be at Mount Vernon are acknowledging and attempting to correct their previous neglect of the stories of the people that George and Martha Washington enslaved, I had to bite my lip at some of the descriptions of the men, women, and children featured in the exhibit. Many of them are taken solely from the words of white people, and utilize words and terms such as “homely”, “mulatto”, “bushy-haired”, etc. Their descriptions rarely pertain to anything other than a basic physical description and/or the labor they performed. Even the actual words of the few enslaved people that spoke or wrote about their lives at Mount Vernon are filtered through the voices of the white people who recorded them. While this does accomplish the task of helping us to understand how the white people at Mount Vernon saw the African Americans that lived and labored there, I don’t think it does much in the way of illuminating the actual stories of the enslaved people of Mount Vernon. And I guess that’s because that’s not really what the point of the exhibit is, anyway. Plastered throughout the exhibit, in both its online and brick and mortar incarnations, are references to Washington’s “landmark decision” to free (most of) his slaves upon his death. Less obvious in the exhibition, although not totally ignored, is the fact that Washington’s will did not free Martha Washington’s dower slaves. Ona Judge, the enslaved woman that escaped during Washington’s presidency, is featured in the exhibit, but its acknowledgment of her story is tempered by frequent references to Washington’s “turnabout” regarding the morality of slavery. The last sentence in the exhibit website’s section on Washington’s views on slavery is “The fact that George Washington could make the transformation from being an unthinking slaveholder to freeing his slaves, in the short span of 24 years, is quite miraculous” which obviously, is rather oversimplifying matters. While I acknowledge Mount Vernon’s attempts to take responsibility for who Washington was, they are definitely doing so through the use of what you called a racial “bifocal” rather than a “lens.”]]

      Most of my thoughts on the exhibit (and of Mount Vernon in general), even the positive ones, revolve around my criticism of its apologism, but I had to mitigate some of those thoughts in the interest of focusing on my critique of the digital capabilities and benefits of the site. When I said I “understood” why Mount Vernon made the decisions it did in regards to this exhibit, I definitely didn’t mean that I agreed with those decisions. I posted the picture of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and mentioned the details regarding the donors because those details are what helped me to “get” the reasons behind the contradictory “big idea” of the exhibit. Like we discussed tonight, the money behind cultural exhibitions often drives the decisions that are made regarding them, and that’s clearly the case here, unfortunately.

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