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Collective Memory at Monticello

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to continue its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Dr. Jennie Ikuta, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Tulsa.

Collective Memory at Monticello

If there exists such a thing as an American collective memory, then Monticello—the estate of Thomas Jefferson—is presumably part of it. In visiting Monticello, we as Americans are invited to remember something about our national past. But what exactly are we remembering?

In July 2016, I found myself in Charlottesville, Virginia; like many visitors, I drove to Monticello to meander the former president’s estate. Over the last few years, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation—which administers and oversees the home and its grounds—has drawn national attention regarding its concerted effort to correct the public portrayal of Monticello that until the 1990s, did not acknowledge the existence of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved mistress. This refusal to acknowledge the existence of Hemings—and presumably, slavery more broadly—grew, as historian Christa Dierksheide explained, from a fear that doing so might stain Jefferson’s reputation.[1] To correct these historical omissions, the Foundation has embarked on a multi-year, $35 million plan to renovate and restore Monticello to its appearance during Jefferson’s lifetime. This plan would render the existence of slavery publicly visible.

As part of its attempt to publicly acknowledge the existence of slavery at Monticello, the Foundation has also created tours such as the “Slavery at Monticello Tour” and the “Hemings Family Tour” that visitors can embark on in addition to the main attraction for most visitors, the “Main House Tour,” which centers Jefferson’s scientific and philosophical achievements. Presumably, the Foundation has admirable aims: it seeks to offer a more complete, and therefore, a truer description of life on the plantation. However, how the Foundation has gone about this is curious. Crucially, both the “Slavery at Monticello Tour” and the “Hemings Family Tour” are separate from the “Main House Tour.” the “Slavery at Monticello Tour” is included in the price of admission to the “Monticello Day Pass & House Tour,” even as the slavery tour is separate from the tour of the main house. However, the “Hemings Family Tour” is separately ticketed from the Monticello Day Pass & House Tour. Even more intriguing is that while the “Hemings Family Tour” incorporates the tour of the house, the tour of the house does not incorporate the “Hemings Family Tour.” In other words, there are two ways to experience the main house—one with and one without the perspectives of slaves. As the visiting experience of Monticello is currently structured, visitors curate their own experience of Monticello and thereby, choose to see what they want to see. As a result, one possibility is that a visitor can elect to only embark on the House Tour, and thereby ignore the existence of slavery at the estate altogether. In this way, slavery can be both visible and invisible to visitors of Monticello; if one can choose to see, one can also choose to not see, or to ignore. Monticello certainly acknowledged the existence of slavery, but ironically, the bifurcated structure of its tours enable visitors to avoid acknowledging it. Another possible visiting experience might take visitors through the Main House Tour as well as the Slavery at Monticello Tour; however, the relationship between the two remains unspecified. One might experience Jefferson’s home imagining that slavery, while unfortunate, was merely incidental to his accomplishments–that slavery was an exception to an otherwise remarkable life. It was as though one could marvel at Jefferson’s achievements by walking through the Main House, and then as a separate matter, lament the existence of slavery.

But this response misses something important, even foundational. Slavery was not incidental to Monticello; it was inextricably bound up with and made the wondrous home and many of its owner’s great achievements possible.  To visit Monticello is to see that slavery was part of the place, but what part exactly? The strangely divided tours do little to suggest that there was any relationship between the achievements of Jefferson, on the one hand, and slavery, on the other. In this way, the Foundation fails to show how slavery underwrote and made Monticello possible.

With respect to collective memory, then, the question cannot only be whether or not we remember certain morally problematic features of our history—although that is certainly important—but also, how we do so. As slavery is currently situated in the public presentation of Monticello, one can either choose to ignore it or imagine that slavery was simply a lamentable glitch—as opposed to a defining feature—of the system. Recognizing the existence of slavery at Monticello is important, but it is not enough; it is crucial to recognize the central role it occupied at Monticello.

What could the Thomas Jefferson Foundation do to create a more accurate and complete experience for visitors of Monticello? One possibility is to create one tour that combines the Main House Tour, the Slavery at Monticello Tour, and the Hemings Family Tour—and draws the deep connections between them. This more comprehensive tour would render the standalone Main House Tour obsolete. In fact, as of the writing of this post, the Foundation has incorporated a newly opened exhibit on the life of Hemings into the Main House Tour, and it plans to create a single tour that features the life of Jefferson as well as the slaves who made his life possible.[3] These developments are a step in the right direction towards making our collective memories not only more complete, but also, more accurate.

It matters not just that we remember, but what we remember about it, and how we do so.

 

[1] NPR, “Monticello Restoration Project Puts an Increased Focus on Jefferson’s Slaves,” https://www.npr.org/2017/02/20/516292305/monticello-restoration-project-puts-an-increased-focus-on-jeffersons-slaves

[2] As of August 2018,

[3] Steve Dubb, “New Exhibits at Monticello Recover Slave Narratives,” Nonprofit Quarterly, June 19th, 2018, https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2018/06/19/new-exhibits-at-monticello-recover-slave-narratives/

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