Still Standing: Evaluating Visitors’ Interest in Slave Dwellings

Thanks to Beth Bullock, Jayd Buteaux, Caitlin Butler, and Bonnie Soper for this guest post. The students first presented this information during a poster session at NCMC‘s annual meeting last week and we’re grateful to be able to share it with NC C2C’s online community.

In the fall of 2014, graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington started a yearlong project focusing on the preservation and interpretation of slave dwellings. The first part in the process was to gather information on the community’s general impressions about slavery and slave dwellings.

Slave Quarter at the Bellamy Mansion

Slave Quarter at the Bellamy Mansion

We conducted 90 visitor surveys at the Bellamy Mansion and 12 focus groups with various individuals across age groups and races within the local Wilmington community. This was done in conjunction with research on various slave dwellings, the history of slavery, and slave dwelling preservation. The data we compiled represents the largest known collection of visitor responses regarding slave dwellings and offers great insight into visitors’ interest in slavery, slave dwellings, and preservation.

Jayd Buteaux interviewing docents

Jayd Buteaux interviewing docents

Community Leaders focus group

Community Leaders focus group

We asked visitors about their knowledge, associations, assumptions, and interest in the history and preservation of slave dwellings, particularly their impressions from visiting the slave quarters at Bellamy Mansion. We also conducted focus groups with various stakeholders, including African American genealogists, historic preservation professionals, African American community leaders, African American parents, and museum docents. The small group interviews helped us gather in-depth responses about the relative importance of preserving slave dwellings and what people want to know about slavery, slave dwellings, and their preservation.

survey results: average interest in various aspects of museums

survey results: average interest in various aspects of historic house museums

Through these surveys and discussions, we found that there were huge gaps in knowledge of the history of slavery. Most visitors envisioned slavery as a Southern, rural phenomenon and pictured an antebellum plantation setting. Visitors exhibited surprise when presented with an urban slave dwelling, proving that visitors needed context on the differences between rural and urban slavery, and the changes in slavery over time. These gaps in knowledge were found amongst all age groups and walks of life. Other themes that became apparent throughout the project were the lack of awareness of agency in the enslaved community and the impact of media representations upon modern perceptions of slavery.

There was also contention over the preservation of slave dwellings and their interpretation. Some participants in the focus groups expressed concern over the authenticity of the representation of slave dwellings.

Our findings prompted research into local slave dwellings and the existence of slave dwellings throughout the Northern and Western United States. These insights will inform our upcoming public exhibit on the preservation of slave dwellings, but can also aid other museums and historic sites in understanding their visitors’ assumptions and correcting myths in visitors’ knowledge. The exhibit will open at the Bellamy Mansion Museum in Wilmington, NC next month (May 2015).

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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 April 7, 2015, in Exhibitions, guest bloggers, historic houses, historic sites and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Beth Bullock and commented:
    A piece my classmates and I wrote as a guest post for North Carolina Connecting to Collections. It is based on a poster we presented at the North Carolina Museums Council conference last week in Durham.

  1. Pingback: Conferences, Guest Blogging, and Thesis Revisions…oh my! | Beth Bullock

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