Review of the Smithsonian Institute’s new exhibit, ‘Thomas Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello. Now touring the country and coming to a museum near you… St. Louis until March 2, 2014
New museum exhibits are created with the purpose …of providing new insights, displaying rarely seen artifacts, and/or educating the public about overlooked historical time periods. The new Jefferson and Slavery exhibit at the Smithsonian’s American History museum struggles to meet any of these criterion. The only perceivable purpose for the exhibition is to reiterate the well-worn preconceived notions of Jefferson revisionists. Little, if any, new ground is broken which will leave visitors wondering if they have seen the information before (most of it is well covered at Monticello.)
The curators cover far too much ground…, taking viewers back to the origins of slavery in Virginia. The spectator flow is not visible and many people viewed the exhibit from the ending. Without transition, Jefferson is introduced as the typical slave-owning Virginian, leaving context to the imagination of the viewer. Many of the artifacts are facsimiles or reproductions and the maps are not particularly helpful. The topographical diorama of Jefferson’s property is not clearly rendered and left many patrons scratching their heads. The slave family trees are quite detailed, but difficult to follow. There are interactive features, but they do not make up for the lack of interesting artifacts.
Oral history is presented to the spectators as reliable…, consistent, and definitive. Any objective student of history understands that oral traditions are rarely any of these. The exhibit often contradicts itself when discussing Jefferson’s record as a slave owner (stating only Hemings family members were freed, later naming others.) The history is purported to be decisive, yet the curators often use ‘squishy’ terms such as: many, most, often, nearly all, consensus. There is no discussion of the Hemings controversy, the exhibit follows the popular breeze blowing from the Monticello Foundation; that Jefferson was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’ children.
Curators will argue that the exhibit seeks to build …understanding. The contradiction of Jefferson’s slave-owning has been poured over by scholars for decades. Oral history from the descendents of Monticello’s slaves have been studied intensely over the last two decades. The timing and location of this new exhibit is puzzling and at the same time frustrating. Other museums and historical sites have devoted time and space to this topic, thus making the Smithsonian’s efforts seem out-of-place. A complex issue such as Jefferson and slavery deserves more than this hastily assembled exhibit.