Personifying the Past

WarrenParkerPleasantThanks to Kym Maddocks, Manager of Research & Interpretive Operations at Old Salem for her assistance with this post.

History organizations often want exhibits to tell important stories but stall out when they run up against a dearth of artifacts to represent particular topics. Old Salem came up with an innovative solution to the problem of portraying past lives with few documentary and artifactual traces. Old Salem contracted artist Warren Parker to develop an exhibit about ten 19th-century African-Americans, many of whom had been enslaved, for the newly reconstructed African Moravian log church heritage center.

slaveWomanParker chose to feature a variety of artistic media to evoke these past lives in conjunction with salvaged grave stones and bits of biographical information found in Old Salem’s collections. A new addition to St. Philip’s brick church in 1890 covered over several African-American graves. Although no human remains had been disturbed, many of the other stones from the front lawn of the church were removed soon afterward and placed in a pile under the front steps of the building. The exhibit displays each encased headstone, alongside Parker’s artistic representation of the person it commemorates. ChristianSamuelParker sculpted several from various materials; other media include an oil painting, a man’s photograph enlarged to life size, a metal silhouette, and a carved wood panel. Each representation is life sized or larger to suggest a proportional comparison for each visitor in a way that appeals to both adults and children.

Young visitors enjoy listening to the tale of Christian David's life. [copyright Katrena]

[copyright Katrena ]

Based on the grave stones and extant documents, Old Salem staff was able to sketch out a life story for each of the ten African-Americans. The institution then arranged with drama students and staff from the nearby UNC School of the Arts to record first-person interpretations of each life. Visitors can pick up a receiver and push a button to listen to each. (At left, young visitors enjoy the story of Christian David. See, to learn more about their visit.) Although paper labels nearby present similar information, the ability to listen to a first-person narrative, while viewing a life-sized representation, conjures the humanity of the past life in a way that many other historic sites could replicate.



About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on December 10, 2013, in archaeology, Exhibitions, historic sites and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Anderson, Lynn D

    Very nice. I’ve seen this done effectively using life sculptures (molding the facial features) of Native people and recording their stories in their own voices and words. It does add an element of authenticity and respect.

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