National Museum of African American History and Culture to explore Jefferson and slavery at Monticello

Monticello and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) today announced their collaboration on a new exhibition entitled “Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” set to open in the NMAAHC Gallery in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on January 27, 2012.

“Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” is presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Together, the institutions hope to inform discussion and encourage understanding of slavery and enslaved people in America through the lens of Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. In an age inspired by the Declaration of Independence, slavery was pervasive―28% of the American population was enslaved in 1790.

By exploring Jefferson’s ideas and slavery at his plantation, Monticello and NMAAHC are examining one of the most difficult topics in American history. The exhibition will explore how the paradox of slavery in Jefferson’s world, and at Monticello, is relevant for generations beyond Jefferson’s lifetime. It will provide a glimpse into the lives of six slave families living at Monticello.

Through a variety of museum objects, works of art, documents and artifacts found through archaeological excavations at Monticello, visitors will see enslaved people as individuals―with names, family connections, values and achievements. Visitors will also see examples of deep marital and family connections, religious faith, efforts to gain literacy and education and tenacity in the pursuit of freedom. The family stories will be brought to the present via Monticello’s Getting Word oral history project, which interviewed 170 descendants of those who lived in slavery on Jefferson’s plantation.

“Understanding the details of the lives of enslaved people adds to our understanding of history, and our understanding of race relations today. We cannot have a clear view of Jefferson, or the founding of our nation, if we leave slavery out of the story,” said Lonnie Bunch, Director of the NMAAHC.

In addition to the exhibition at the NMAAHC gallery in Washington, D.C., Monticello is undertaking the interpretation and long-term restoration of Mulberry Row, the hub of Jefferson’s plantation with 21 dwellings for enslaved and free workers, manufacturing workshops, and storage sheds. A new exhibition, “Mulberry Row and the Landscape of Slavery at Monticello” will open in February 2012 featuring mini-exhibitions at key sites augmented by computer animations, a website and a smartphone app—all providing new ways for visitors to explore the past and understand the lives of enslaved people. Monticello also has plans to re-create a dwelling for enslaved people, reinstate Jefferson’s original roads, mark the sites and outlines of lost structures and restore both of the remaining original buildings on Mulberry Row. The multi-faceted approach is designed to help both “real” and “virtual” visitors understand Monticello’s complex world.

“As a result of Jefferson’s assiduous record-keeping, augmented by fifty years of modern scholarly research, Monticello is the best documented, best preserved, and best studied plantation in North America,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Through our partnership, Monticello and NMAAHC have a unique opportunity to discuss slavery as the unresolved issue of the American Revolution and to offer Jefferson and Monticello as a window into the unfulfilled promise of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”

Visitors are encouraged to visit both locations in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the paradox of liberty and slavery at Monticello.

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