Fun with Public Lectures
Last Thursday (March 1) I gave my first public lecture at Historic St. Mary’s City. After such a large crowd at the panel discussion at St. Mary’s College, I thought that the group would migrate over on Thursday, but alas it was not meant to be. However, there were about 20 people there who came out to listen, and I think a great time was had by most. I talked about my experiences interpreting slave life at living history sites and really talked about what politics come in to play when working with such an electrifying topic. Nothing was really left out as I discussed how we held trainings to get the other interpreters comfortable with talking about slavery at Brattonsville in depth, the double standards that can crop up when you have one African American interpreter who has to know all the history while others only learn the “white” history, what it’s like under the “token” label and why certain topics are taboos.
For me, this lecture served as an enlightening period of what is going on at historic sites, and how we can make changes so that there isn’t a lopsided portrayal of history particularly at sites that incorporate third person interpretation. I could see the museum professionals in the room really have those “aha” moments when we talked about how to share the wealth of information. While writing out the presentation it occurred to me that there were quite a few negative experiences I had while doing interpretation. The only thing is, I didn’t really focus on the negative while I was working because I truly enjoyed talking to the public about slavery. For every situation that could have made for a miserable experience, I made sure that I turned it into a positive. It took a long reflective period to see that there was a battle just about every day to make sure the story of slavery was interpreted correctly and consistently, but we made it happen.
Even in the negative, I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad experience if you can turn it around and learn from it. Even with the human resource issues of inappropriate plantation humor (if there’s even such a thing as appropriate plantation humor), instead of making a large deal out of something people would say without thinking, I always looked at those situations as something we could ALL learn from.
It felt great to get the feedback after the fact saying how much those who were there really enjoyed the talk although it ended up being longer than I thought it would be. The one thing I strive for is a connection with my audience. I don’t want slavery to be a topic that they are scared to ask questions about or to just really show that they have an interest in. It was also great to see so many people excited to hear that St. Mary’s City was taking the steps to talk about slavery on the site. There is a true interest in the whole story and for so long we have gotten the “Gone with the Wind” version instead of the truth. That’s not just saying that the vision of slave life was washed over, but also the life of plantation owners. Not every woman lived their life like Scarlett and what I’m seeing is more visitors taking those rose colored lenses off and wanting to see how it really was for all people. We’re taking steps in the right direction and I am so excited to be a part of it.
A reader, Catherine who commented on the last post, wondered if St. Mary’s City had any pictures or a website of the slave cabin that they are currently studying. Well, like everything else in the museum world, St. Mary’s is waiting for funding to come through to complete everything involved with getting that cabin online and ready for visitors to see it. However, while I was there, I did manage to get some pictures of the exterior of the cabin. The building was locked so I was not able to see the inside, but I’m sure that day will come soon enough. For now, please enjoy the pictures, and thanks Catherine for your inquiry.