The Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana has recently appeared in the news, after a 16 year restoration effort by its founder, attorney John Cummings. The museum, a 262-year-old former plantation has been renovated to accommodate artists’ sculptures and memorials to enslaved Africans. Particularly poignant is the Plantation’s large sculpture display at the Antioch Baptist Church on the property, dedicated to children who died in slavery. According to the Reuters article by Jonathan Kaminsky, Cummings also foresees opening “an on-site institute to further the study of slavery,” and in will in the future “restore a cluster of guest houses for visiting scholars.” The Museum certainly occupies a much-needed space for reflection and dedication to the lives and struggles of enslaved people. However, the site is also creating controversy. Several Louisiana scholars and curators of other African-American history museums are concerned that the Whitney Museum is meant to be “provocative” and “sensational” rather than factual and educational.
The Whitney Museum is opening during a significant period of discourse in the Public History field. Scholars and museum professionals are anticipating and dialoging about new trends in Public History that address “difficult” (or controversial) topics in history such as slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, GLBT history, and the Holocaust. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) has recently addressed “difficult knowledge” with a blog series, pamphlet, and an interpretive manual dedicated to education about slavery at Public History sites.
Considering that I am studying both Public History with Dr. Martinko and American Historiography with Dr. Giesberg this semester, and the topic of slavery’s portrayal at historic sites is greatly relevant to my work. As scholars, we address historiographical questions, many of which are sensitive, painful, and highly controversial on a weekly basis. But how do we interpret these questions for large audiences?
Historically Speaking blog readers, what do you think? How should Cummings address slavery at the Whitney Museum? Does the Museum achieve its goals of educating the public and facilitating dialogue about slavery, or is it sensational and unethical?