This summer I had a very unique opportunity to serve as a chaperone for the National Park Service’s Preserve America Youth Summit in Savannah, GA. I was able to be a fly on the wall watching teenagers tour and interact with museums and historic sites. For once, I could sit back, watch, listen, and digest without stressing about it being my historic house! Wow — was it enlightening.
For those unfamiliar with the Preserve America program, it is designed to get teenagers interested in historic preservation and motivated to become involved in preserving the built environment in their own communities. It’s an intensive 3 to 4 days where the students are immersed in preservation concepts, jargon, and places.
Back to my story, the leaders had arranged a special after-hours tour of a well-known historic house in Savannah. It is beautifully restored, holds an important place in Savannah, and was, in all likelihood, an excellent place to begin the conversation. However, it didn’t come off as planned. The guides in this particular 18th century historic house are forbidden from using the terms “slave” or “enslaved.” They must use the term “servant” to avoid offending visitors. About 40% of the teens (ages 16-18) on the tour were black – from various cities and various socio-economic backgrounds. They were very quiet on the tour.
Two days later the students could no longer contain their ire. They knew full well that each and every black person that had a connection to the building and maintenance of that house and family had been a slave – why was it being covered up?! And that is precisely how they termed it “covered up,” cleaned up,” “white-washed.” The students each expressed a wide array of sentiments during the subsequent discussion: amazement, horror, anger, resentment, confusion, and dismay. When I asked them what term they wanted used on tours, in label text, etc…every student said, unequivocally “slave.”
Given that 8 years ago I was attacked by the museum community for using the word slave on tours (sets the field back 50 years…), I asked the students if this “covered up” history impacted their visit, “yes, it lessened the experience.” Then I asked, did it make them more or less likely to 1) recommend this historic house to family/friends visiting Savannah or 2) make them more or less likely to want to visit historic houses in the future. Every answer was the same – I don’t want to go to anymore of them because it’s all going to be the same sanitized history and I won’t recommend anyone visit there. Egads! This is directly opposite what museum directors want to hear.
Margaret Biser recently wrote about slavery questions she received as a historic site guide. When I did a Google search to look at “political correctness and museums” I was astounded at the backlash across the blogosphere and on “trip advisor” type websites on the sanitized and generally inaccurate pictures of history people believe they are being force fed. Apparently, people don’t like being being what they perceive as lied to about history. It, evidently, undermines our credibility as the “holders of history.”
Seems to me if we really want to have future audiences (read: millenials) we need to study them less and ask them more.
— Michelle Zupan, Curator & Director, Hickory Hill, Thomson, GA