Over at the Engaging Places blog this past week, Max A. van Balgooy posted about the initial plans in a “Slave for a Day” program at Hampton, a Maryland plantation dating to the 1700s. In response to immediate public reaction, the Hampton staff modified the program pretty dramatically. Max’s post caused me to reflect on living history presentations a bit more. A couple of years ago in my Museum Practices graduate seminar at the University of Memphis, students discussed the Conner Prairie Follow the North Star activity where visitors take part in a living history program based on enslaved peoples experiences as fugitives seeking their freedom in pre-Civil War United States.
The website of the Organization of American Historians provides a thoughtful review of the North Star program. A paper by Scott Magelssen published by Project Muse contextualizes the North Star and similar programs within museum studies literature.
According to the Conner Prairie website, participants can:
Become a fugitive slave on the Underground Railroad, fleeing from captivity, risking everything for freedom. What will you experience on your quest for a new life? Come face-to-face with slave hunters, see fear and hope in the eyes of a fellow runaway and be encouraged by a Quaker family. Truly experience life as a fugitive slave during your journey through one of the most compelling periods in Indiana’s history.
My seminar students reacted to the “become” and “Truly experience” promotion of the 90-minute Follow the North Star program arguing that the statements trivialize slavery. The trivializing noted by my students is reflected by one blogger who wrote:
The visitor response to the North Star program is varied. On the Conner Prairie website two student testimonials in the form of written assignments seem to exemplify the desired program goals. In his paper, Magelssen notes examples of less than desirable visitor behavior to such living history events with examples from both Colonial Williamsburg and Conner Prairie noting:
A group of middle-aged, affluent white men and women on our “Follow the North Star” program were so disrespectful (giggling the whole way through, sassing back to the costumed characters) that the staff recognized our entire experience was compromised, and we were offered the opportunity to go through again.
Conner Prairie has certainly hit on a popular program concept. Since 1998, 60,000 people have participated in Follow the North Star. But the “Truly experience life as a fugitive slave” promotion is even countered by an 8th grader’s written testimonial on the Conner Prairie web page in noting “We know at the end of the night we’ll be okay and that no one will actually hurt us.” Of course, that was not the true experience of fugitive slaves.
To be clear, my point is not about the North Star program content but how Conner Prairie markets or represents that content. The revised program at Hampton seems to address this issue – that is, no you can’t really be or truly experience that specific “peculiar institution” today – but let me tell you about it. The revised Hampton program seems a considerably more accurate/educational depiction of the lives of enslaved peoples than my experience of plantation tours along the West Bank between New Orleans and Baton Rouge where the visitors were told how the pre-Civil War master at that particular plantation was exceptional in his care for the enslaved people.
The photo at the top of this page was taken in Mound Louisiana, near a farm road’s intersection with Highway 80. When I lived over that way, I used to stand at this intersection and in the distance I could see an old mule barn, the dilapidated Mound Plantation Company Store, and the railroad tracks and depot to the south (all now gone – except the tracks). I tried to envision what it was like to be a sharecropper there in the late 1800s. For myself, what I always came back to was not the labor but being tied to the land, the lack of freedom to move about. I tried to imagine what those sharecroppers must have thought when the train came by and stopped at the depot to take folks somewhere they would never go. I suspect at best, sharecroppers on the Mound Plantation rarely, if ever, even got as far as Vicksburg Mississippi, 15 miles and a wide Mississippi River away. I have never been afraid of hard work. But I could not imagine the loss of freedom of movement. To stand out in a field and chop cotton and have someone yell at me to work harder would trivialize knowing the sharecropper experience. I suspect the same is true for many today, young and old alike who visit our cultural heritage venues.
Living history can trivialize or truly engage with the past. The outcome may often be determined in how cultural heritage venue the presents or represents the experience.
What are your thoughts on effective living history programs?
P.S. about two minutes after posting this initially, Adele Barbato’s Cabinet of Curiosity blog comes in with a related theme.