Panels and Plantations

Continuing my week of adventures and presentations, I had the honor of being a panelist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland last night. The panel discussion was about diversity in museums, and how we can diversify our visitors, not only racially, but socioeconomically, as well as in age range. Most visitors to museums are older, white, wealthy and very educated. How then do we reach these audiences that are not a large part of our statistics?

The discussion was very healthy and active, and I think that each panelist brought a different perspective on how diversity is spreading among museums and how this may in turn cause a more diverse audience to come about. Hosted by the Museum Studies Steering Committee, this event had a large turn out not just of students, but also members of the community at large and I was told the college President was even in attendance. I felt that if this group of students is any indicator of what’s to come, then the future of museums is in great hands.

After such an invigorating conversation, I had trouble going to sleep. My body was tired and I was ready to just have the deepest sleep ever, but my mind was racing, which lead me to be up quite late. I know I’m going to pay for the lack of sleep once I get back home but such is life. Figures the chance that I have to get some extra sleep without a two year old demanding I be up promptly at 7am, I’d blow it and stay up all night and still get up at the crack of dawn…but I digress.

Today I had the pleasure of visiting Sotterley Plantation in Hollywood, MD and has an amazing history that spans 300 years. Yes, you read correctly. 3-0-0. While there are plenty of old houses with long histories, often sites will concentrate on one era. Historic St. Mary’s City looks at life in the 17th century, Historic Brattonsville looks at the early 1840s. Sotterley is looking at 1703 to roughly 1961. Now you’re probably doing the math and saying that’s not 300 years. But they have been going for 300 years and their history is constantly growing, new discoveries being made. Executive Director Nancy Easterling and Education Director Jeanne Pirtle showed myself and Elizabeth Nosek, Director of Education at HSMC around for a tour and explained the history of the site and the programs that they do. What I was most impressed with, and what I’ll focus on for the rest of this post is how the story of slavery was incorporated SEAMLESSLY into the narrative of the site. And there is some explosive history there. Jeanne told us how they had known that a ship pulled into the port down the hill from the plantation home, and this ship held slaves. What she was doing was utilizing the information that is in the United Kingdom to gain more information about this particular ship and it’s journey. I was like a kid in a candy store when she told me this little tidbit because I could see the possibilities for programming that went beyond the amazing scope they already have. What for some places may be a shameful portion of history was instead embraced as a way to bring light the “not so pretty” of slavery so that a complete story can be told. It also helps that they have information on slaves who ran away from the plantation, in particular, Joe, who had quite a few ads placed for himself. Enslaved men and women (their names escape me) fled to the British and gained freedom in Nova Scotia, and these stories are validated with primary and secondary documents which is a feat for any place. Placards placed around the main house told this story and as one looked out towards the Patuxent River, you can almost imagine the hustle and bustle of life at this place.

What really struck me and what I strive for other places to see is how the story of slavery is told not just through their 1830s slave cabin, which is original, but how they used oral histories to help tell the story. There are some who would tell you that you can’t use oral histories from slave descendants to help tell the story of slavery, but Sotterley proves not only is this possible, but it can give you amazing leads to help further your research. The descendants of the Kane and Briscoe families are still very involved in the plantation and there is a great sense of pride among them, and how could there not be? Their history is just as important as the wealthy white families who came to own the site over the years and the staff at Sotterley have made it their mission to make sure you the visitor know their story. Not just in the slave cabin, not just on a didactic board somewhere, but all along the way. As an interpreter, and as a historian, I thought to myself, “here’s a place that gets it”. I hope to be able to continue the conversations I have had with staff members at Sotterley in talking about how they have successfully been able to tell the whole story all the while not creating a glaring division. I could wax poetic all day long on how this site was marvelous, but really I would suggest that you come out if you are in the area and check them out and form your own opinions on how they have made slavery, emancipation, and life thereafter a natural part of their interpretation. Find them online at and take a look.

image courtesy of Sotterely.orgSotterley Plantation, the Jewel of Southern Maryland

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