Material Culture

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, January 8, 1974. Image credit: El Gráfico, Argentina, Wikimedia Commons.

Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., come face to face with a vast array of iconic objects from America’s past, including a pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, the light bulb Thomas Edison used when he first publicly displayed his invention in 1879, and the inaugural gown worn by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2013.[i] These things—boxing gloves, a light bulb, and a gown—belong to the category known as material culture, what the folklorist Henry Glassie described as the “tangible yield of human conduct” and the historian Leora Auslander called “the class of all human-made objects.”[ii]

People throughout history have had a complex relationship with the objects they create, use, live with, sell, discard, and treasure. Although human beings by definition create material culture, they cannot control how objects are used or the meanings that come to be associated with them. For historians, objects have many stories to tell: there is the story of an object’s invention and creation; stories about an object’s useful life (who acquired it and for what purposes it was put to use); and stories of what we might think of as its “afterlife,” when an object is taken out of circulation to become a part of an institutional collection where it becomes available for historians to study. Collecting a wide range of objects and uncovering as many of these stories as possible can help create a more inclusive understanding of the past.

Historians’ Use of Material Culture

Historians have not always invested significantly in studying material culture. Earlier generations of historians concentrated largely on politics, war, and economics, predominantly relying on written primary sources, mostly created by elites (and often elite men) who had the time and resources to create a documentary record. Collectors and curators at museums and historic sites were often similarly focused on collecting and displaying what had been owned by the elite.[iii] These curators devoted themselves to questions of provenance and connoisseurship, which focused on the artists and craftspeople who had made the objects and on the museum’s acquisition of the finest examples of specific types of decorative arts, often furniture and ceramics, to build these elite-focused collections. The social historians who rose to prominence in the field beginning in the second half of the twentieth century built on the work of a relatively small group of pioneering scholars and curators who had long been interested in telling the stories of non-elites. Beginning in the 1960s, widespread attention became focused on the past lives of ordinary men, women, and children.[iv] Because they did not usually leave as rich a written record as the wealthy did, their lives had to be explored by other means. The material world contained many objects that could help to reconstruct and tell their life stories. Material culture began to play a much more significant role in the work of this later generation of scholars who sought to better understand the lives of non-elite men and women.

Historians who study the material world undertake creative and interdisciplinary work as they engage with historical archaeologists, anthropologists, curators, museum collections, and written sources (including probate records, store accounts, and catalogs) that help us better understand material culture. Collections of everyday items can serve as valuable repositories of information about the lives of the ordinary men, women, and children who inhabited the past and help modern-day museumgoers connect to their stories.

Witnessing Objects

Many historians and public history institutions today rely heavily on material culture to tell compelling stories and engage visitors. One common kind of object collected by museums is the witnessing object. These objects were present at a pivotal moment in the past and serve as tangible links to that history. Being in the presence of one of these witnessing objects enables modern-day people to feel connected to a specific moment or event in the timeline of history. In April 2012, for example, when President Barack Obama visited the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan, he took the opportunity to sit on the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, the event that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. Seated on the bus, peering out one of its windows, President Obama physically occupied the space and could imagine seeing through the eyes of leaders and participants in the U.S. civil rights movement.

Material culture as “witness.” President Barack Obama on the bus Rosa Parks rode that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, on exhibit in With Liberty and Justice for All, at the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan. Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, April 18, 2012.

The ability of material culture to connect visitors to the lives of those who left little evidence in the written record has led museums to seek out new kinds of witnessing objects. In advance of the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, sought out material evidence, for example, from the Middle Passage—the horrific journey across the Atlantic that brought more than 12.5 million captive Africans to North and South America. What the Slave Wrecks Project ultimately found was the wreck of São José Paquete de Africa, a ship headed to Brazil, which sank in December 1794 off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The more than 200 men, women, and children who perished in this single tragedy were forgotten until the ship’s discovery in 2010. Despite the thousands of slave ship voyages, this wreckage was the first ever recovered from a ship that sank while carrying captive Africans to the Americas. The ship is a material remnant frozen in time at a moment when it was a tool of the slave trade. Iron ballast, which weighed down the ship for its voyage because human cargo was lighter than the material goods ships like these often carried, was part of what was found at the wreck of the São José. At the Smithsonian, these ballasts stand as witnesses to the horrors of enslavement. As Lonnie Bunch explains, the exhibition of the material remains of the São José are displayed in a reverential “memorial space.”[v]

Multiple Contexts

But to stop there—to let objects only speak for themselves as witnesses to important moments in the past—greatly limits the interpretive potential of material culture. Even objects associated with famous events and people often began life as unremarkable material things. Material culture objects are embedded in multiple contexts—their production, their use, and their “afterlife” as objects of display—from which we can learn a great deal more than their association with past events and people. Furthermore, many scholars who study material culture argue that material culture does more than reflect historical processes; it can also shape them. Of the objects we have already considered, we can also ask: Who made them? What kind of employment practices did these laborers work under? What can we learn about wider social dynamics from these objects? What did these objects mean to the people who owned and used them? In what ways did these objects shape individual and collective identity? What could we learn, for example, about who made Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves? How did Thomas Edison’s invention change how people lived and worked? What does it say about our gendered understandings of the U.S. presidency that we collect and display the inaugural gowns of the First Ladies? Current-day museumgoers can be challenged to think about how material culture reflected and shaped human identity in the past and at the same time be given opportunities to make connections to their own relationships with the material world.

How to Analyze Material Culture

To understand material culture, people must study the object itself, as well as interrogate a wide variety of other sources. These additional sources—documents, oral histories, other material goods—allow us to develop a more complete picture of the many meanings of material culture.[vi] Without these other avenues of information and understanding, the complex past meanings of the material world would remain largely obscured. Scholars have developed guidelines to assist researchers interested in doing this kind of multi-level analysis of objects. Material culture scholar Karen Harvey has developed a beginner’s approach to fully interrogate an object, which includes three steps. The first step is to develop a physical description of the object. If at all possible, get into the same room as one of the objects and, if it is small enough (and accessible), hold it in your hands. Then describe the object by considering “what the object is made of, how it was made and (of course) when; production methods and manufacture, materials, size, weight, design, style, decoration and date.” The second step is to “place the object in historical context, primarily by referring to other evidence. Here we can explore who owned this (or similar) object, when, and what they were used for.” In this step, the focus is on how the object was used and by whom during a particular time period. In the final step, an even broader view is taken to begin exploring what the object meant in that time period. Placing the object into this “socio-cultural context” enables a deeper understanding of the significance of the object in people’s lives.[vii] To add a fourth step, you could also consider the history of the object once it moved into a museum collection, considering when it was displayed and why.

Early Twentieth-Century Polk’s Dairy Milk Caps from Indianapolis, Indiana. Photo credit: Courtesy of Paul Mullins.

One such object whose meanings were uncovered only through the interrogation of a wide variety of sources are the foil milk caps from Polk’s Dairy in Indianapolis, Indiana. Historical archaeologist Paul Mullins has studied the city’s historically African American neighborhoods, where a frequently recovered item is a foil milk cap, an item used to close glass milk bottles in the early decades of the twentieth century. At first, researchers set them aside because they appeared to reveal little more than the fact that the occupants drank milk. But as Mullins recounts, an elder of Indianapolis’ African American community later told them how the city’s Riverside Amusement Park, open only to whites, allowed African American admissions one day each year. Foil milk caps were the required admission token, and African Americans in the city called it “Milk Cap Day.” The example of the Indianapolis foil milk caps shows how objects of the material world reflect the larger historical processes in which they are embedded—in this case racism and segregation in the mid-twentieth-century United States—and how even these ephemeral pieces of material culture took on new layers of meaning and could provide more inclusive interpretive possibilities.[viii]


[i] This entry is adapted, with permission from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, from Cherstin M. Lyon, Elizabeth M. Nix, and Rebecca K. Shrum, Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers/AASLH, 2017), 98-101, 109.

[ii] Henry Glassie, Material Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 41; Leora Auslander, “Beyond Words,” American Historical Review 110, no. 4 (2005): 1015.

[iii] Gary Kulik traces the development of history museum exhibitions in “Designing the Past: History-Museum Exhibitions from Peale to the Present,” Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, eds., History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 2-37.

[iv] See Ellen Fitzpatrick, History’s Memory: Writing America’s Past, 1880-1980 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) and Briann G. Greenfield, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 167-204.

[v] Roger Catlin, “Smithsonian to Receive Artifacts from Sunken 18th-Century Slave Ship,” Smithsonian, May 31, 2015,

[vi] As an example of this kind of material culture scholarship, see Rebecca K. Shrum, “Selling Mr. Coffee: Design, Gender, and the Branding of a Kitchen Appliance,” Winterthur Portfolio 46, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 271-298.

[vii] Karen Harvey, History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (New York: Routledge, 2009), 1-23. One of the earliest sets of guidelines, and one that has been very influential, is Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 1-19.

[viii] Paul R. Mullins, “Racializing the Commonplace Landscape: An Archaeology of Urban Renewal Along the Color line,” World Archaeology 28, no. 1 (2006): 60-71.

Suggested Readings

Harvey, Karen. History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources. New York: Routledge Press, 2009.

Katz-Hyman, Martha B., and Kym S. Rice, eds. World of a Slave: Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO/Greenwood, 2011.

Lubar, Steven. Inside the Lost Museum: Curating Past and Present. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Twenty Questions to Ask an Object.” From the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association, Material Culture Caucus.

Winterthur Portfolio. The leading American journal of material culture studies.


Rebecca Shrum is Associate Professor of History, Associate Director of the Public History program, and Adjunct Affiliated Faculty, Museum Studies at IUPUI.



An original slave cabin on the Whitney Plantation with statues by Woodrow Nash on the porch. Photo credit: Elsa Hahne.

Visiting a plantation museum today can be a jarring experience. Since the mid-twentieth century, the once-ubiquitous economic engines of the pre-Civil War South have been recast as elegant mansions. Visitors are meant to feel comfortable and safe, strolling grounds surrounded by lush landscaping and feeling nostalgic for a romantic, simpler time. In some ways, visitors see what they want to see, and they are influenced by popular films and novels that prop up the “moonlight and magnolias” trope. But historians are not off the hook. Public historians, academic historians, and museum professionals alike have been complicit in rewriting plantation history to put white slaveowners front and center.

Though museum interpretation is rapidly changing, it is still possible to tour a plantation house in this country without hearing anything substantive about the enslaved people who built it. This is problematic for many reasons, but consider the numbers to start: the majority of people who lived on plantations in the nineteenth century were African and African-descended enslaved people. Enslaved people cleared the land, milled the wood, fired the bricks, built the houses, and tended land and livestock on plantations. Plantations were predominantly black spaces built and maintained by black people against their will. Yet in every former slave state, visitors can find plantation tours that elevate the stories of owners over enslaved people.

Historical Background

Museum practitioners began to minimize the history of slavery on plantations by the time the first plantation home opened for tours in the United States. Mount Vernon, the first house museum in the United States, is also the first plantation museum. Its history as a historic site bleeds into its history as a plantation, since the slave-owning women of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association bought the property in 1858 from a descendant of George Washington who was still enslaving people at the time.[i] In words that would presage the interpretation of hundreds of sites that followed in its footsteps, the founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association instructed the early members of the organization to “see to it that you keep it the home of Washington” and “let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress.”[ii] Lauding the history of owners while minimizing or erasing the history of the enslaved became standard practice for most plantation museums until the late twentieth century.

From the time the women of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association opened Mount Vernon for tours in the 1850s until today, plantation museums have reflected the political culture of the country. The resurgence in what is known as “moonlight and magnolias” interpretation in the 1960s had more to do with white Americans’ discomfort with changing racial dynamics than it did historical interest. In the 1960s and 1970s, as a reaction to the civil rights movement and coinciding with a peak in interest about history around the bicentennial of the American Revolution, plantation tours became popular throughout the South. In 1976, Louisiana’s Oak Alley Plantation was advertised as a “bicentennial landmark,” whose “trees are a living link with the era of the American Revolution.”[iii] Many plantations became frozen in time in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, with guides dressed in hoop skirts inviting guests to learn about the lavish lives of antebellum plantation owners.

Throughout the twentieth century, this imagined history of plantations became big business, particularly in places such as South Carolina and Louisiana with a large number of extant plantations, many of which had been in operation with resident African-American sharecroppers and wage workers into the late twentieth century. Today, tourism is the fourth largest industry in Louisiana, with plantation tourism holding a major claim over heritage tourism dollars. Louisiana’s historic sites are top of mind for visitors, ranking higher than nightlife in visitor activities.[iv]

In the 1980s and 1990s, plantations gradually began weaving narratives of slavery into their interpretation. Even as plantation tours grappled with slavery, they often did so in the form of special events, segregated interpretive spaces, and optional tours. Discussing slavery at length only during an optional slavery tour and not on the tour of the plantation home allows visitors to think of the institution as ancillary to the true narrative—that of the plantation owners. Early slavery interpretation often failed to present enslaved people as multi-dimensional individuals. Instead, they became nameless figures who faded into the background or appeared only when they had direct interaction with the white interpretive subjects.

Whitney Plantation owner’s house, constructed in 1790. Photo credit: Elsa Hahne.

Changing Interpretation

Today, many sites are changing their interpretation in important ways to highlight the history of enslavement. James Madison’s Montpelier opened a groundbreaking exhibit, The Mere Distinction of Colour, in 2017; George Washington’s Mount Vernon created a comprehensive slavery exhibit in 2016; and in 2018 Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello opened an exhibit dedicated to the story of Sally Hemings, with curatorial help from a Hemings descendant. In addition to the interpretive expansion seen in Virginia sites, there are new museums opening dedicated to counter-narratives. In 2014, the Whitney Plantation opened in Louisiana as a memorial site with an exclusive focus on slavery. Charleston County Parks’ McLeod Plantation opened in 2015, interpreting the whole history of African-American labor at the site, from the time of slavery until the last resident workers left in 1990.

Despite the numerous plantation sites that are doing valuable work to bring this important history to the fore, there is still much more that public historians can do to be inclusive in their interpretation. It is important for public historians to remember that plantations are sites of trauma. Too often, we ignore the immense pain of these places in favor of a generalized interpretation that may acknowledge that life was hard, but not that it was traumatic. Spaces of brutal terror, plantations continue to bring immense pain to people whose ancestors lived and worked on them. In the case of plantations like Whitney and McLeod, there are still numerous living people who remember life on these plantations. Across the plantation South, African-American workers—many of them descended from enslaved people who worked the same land—did not leave plantations in large numbers until the Second Great Migration in the 1950s and 1960s. In South Louisiana, resident cane workers remained on plantations as late as the 1980s. Inclusive interpretation at plantation sites takes the depth and breadth of this pain seriously, acknowledging that the history has a long footprint that extends to our present day.


Before reworking interpretation, it is important to remember that the language we use in our interpretation is key. By referring to enslaved people as “slaves,” we are affirming their status as objects rather than multi-dimensional human beings. Using the term “enslaved” as an adjective emphasizes their humanity first, indicating that their enslavement is just a condition and not their entire identity. Under no circumstances should interpreters use euphemisms like “servants” when referring to enslaved people. This sanitizes the history of slavery and minimizes the fact that enslaved people were held against their will. Similarly, public historians should openly acknowledge and discuss methods of punishment and coercion that were in place at the site. This truth-telling is critical to communicating a complete narrative.


Plantations that are just beginning to interpret the whole history of their site may be intimidated or afraid that they don’t have enough information to give the history of slavery justice. The interpretation of slavery is often more difficult than the interpretation of free people because of a lack of sources. Yet there are creative ways that plantation sites can use sources to uncover the history of their enslaved workers.

Because enslaved people were property, most plantations have records of the people who were held in bondage there even if those records are incomplete. Inventories and sale documents can be invaluable in learning about the ages, skill sets, and even ethnic origins of enslaved people. Researchers can usually find these documents in local courthouses. Courthouses also have records of lawsuits involving enslaved people. Enslaved people often stood trial for resisting their captivity through violence and conspiracy. These lawsuits allow us to understand their methods of resistance. Historical newspapers are also important sources of information, as they published runaway notices in nearly every edition. Plantation owners advertised by name when someone they owned ran away, and these advertisements usually include personal details about the enslaved person. Historians have launched a crowd-sourced project to digitize and transcribe runaway notices called Freedom on the Move. This is just one of many digital resources researchers can put to use. Additionally, though they must be understood in their context, the Works Progress Administration slave narratives, which are available for free through the Library of Congress, can also be incredibly useful sources that can help us interpret the daily lives of enslaved people.

Connecting with Descendants

Perhaps the most valuable relationships that plantation sites can build in order to understand the lives of their enslaved populations is with descendants of enslaved people. Descendants should be involved in interpretation in every step from planning to execution. Their perspectives are essential to equitable and inclusive interpretation. In 2018, descendants, historians, and museum professionals from around the country gathered at James Madison’s Montpelier to craft best practices for working with descendant communities in the interpretation of slavery. Many sites have been engaged with this work for some time, from presidential sites to lesser-known plantations like Somerset in North Carolina. There are numerous road maps for sites that want to engage in meaningful co-creation with descendant communities.

Above all, museum professionals who work at plantation sites must be mindful of the immense weight of the history of slavery and treat it with respect and care. We must be humble in acknowledging that our field has done damage to descendant communities and to the wider public by not honestly interpreting the history of slavery. Despite our history, there is much room for reparative practice and we should find encouragement and inspiration in the numerous sites that are doing good work. With violent events igniting Americans over issues of race and history in places such as Charleston and Charlottesville, this is a critical time for historic sites to bravely tell the truth.


[i] “The Early History of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association,” Mount Vernon

[ii] Jessica Foy Donnelly, Interpreting Historic House Museums (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2002), 22.

[iii] The Assumption Pioneer, July 1, 1976, 4.

[iv] D.K. Shifflet & Associates, Ltd., “Year-End 2017 Visitor Profile: An Inside Look at the Louisiana Travel Market,” State of Louisiana Cultural Resources & Tourism Department study, 2018.

Suggested Readings

van Balgooy, Max, ed. Interpreting African-American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2014.

Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004.

Gallas, Kristin, and James DeWolf Perry, eds. Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2014.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton, eds. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

National Summit on Teaching Slavery. “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites.” History News, 74, no. 1 (Winter 2019): 14-21.

National Summit on Teaching Slavery. “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery: A Rubric of Best Practices.” Technical Leaflet 285. American Association for State and Local History.

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2016.


~ Ashley Rogers is the Executive Director at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. She is a frequent speaker on the topic of slavery interpretation and she has served as an advisor on museum projects with the Atlanta History Center, Rhode Island’s Center for Reconciliation, and Stenton. She is a co-author of the MASS Action toolkit and James Madison’s Montpelier’s rubric for descendant community engagement. She can be reached at

Heritage Tourism

Freedom Crossing Monument, Lewiston, New York. Photo credit: Cordell Reaves

Heritage tourism is focused on people, attractions, history, and activities that are particular to a region. The relationship between heritage travelers and museums and historic sites is a natural coupling of shared interests and intellectual curiosity. Heritage travelers are seekers of the authentic and unique and are, not surprisingly, frequent visitors to cultural attractions.

Attracting heritage travelers can be an elusive prize for museums and historic sites, and it often pays dividends to cooperate with cultural organizations. Some museums can experience spill-over visitation, or visitors drawn by other attractions or events in the area. A major attraction may open nearby, a new show or film may highlight a local story, and numerous other scenarios may bring new travelers and opportunities to your community. Ideally, tourism planning should be proactive and focused, so an institution is prepared to seize opportunities.

There are many things to consider as you assess the market readiness of your institution. Do you have a relevant, meaningful product? What is your reputation locally and beyond? Are you known beyond your local community? Is your staff fully ready to welcome an influx of visitors? An honest appraisal of institutional strengths and weaknesses is not just advisable but necessary.

Constant Ambassador

A “constant ambassador” is someone who recognizes that they are the public face of an institution during every visitor interaction and that it is part of their job to be kind, informative, and helpful. Regardless of role, everyone on staff must be enlisted as a constant ambassador for the site. Involve all staff, volunteers, and board members in customer service training. Whether a person is standing in a gallery or shoveling the front walk, they should know why the museum matters. All staff should also understand that visitors should feel welcome the moment they enter the grounds.

While museums are non-profit entities, some lessons can be borrowed from the corporate world. Consider the following points made by Kenneth B. Elliot, Vice President in Charge of Sales for The Studebaker Corporation in 1941.

The customer is not dependent upon us—we are dependent upon [them]. The customer is not an interruption of our work—[they are] the purpose of it. The customer is not a rank outsider to our business—[they are] a part of it. The customer is not a statistic—[they are] a flesh-and-blood human being completely equipped with biases, prejudices, emotions, pulse, blood chemistry and possibly a deficiency of certain vitamins.[i]

The ultimate fate of the Studebaker brand aside, the customer service message is clear: visitors should feel welcome. Some museum professionals regard the public as an invading army we need to defend against in order to protect resources in our care; when, in fact, everything we do is in the service of the public. Museums must always practice good stewardship, but that charge must be balanced with sufficient public access and engagement.

Philipsburg Manor, Sleepy Hollow, New York. Photo credit: Cordell Reaves

Balancing Stewardship and Visitor Experience

Preservation of the collection for future generations cannot exclude the needs of the present generation to develop an appreciation for and an emotional connection with objects or structures. We cannot assume that visitors will care about museum collections and programming if we cannot create points of relevance that resonate with them.

In historic house environments many people are still often forced to peer into rooms from a doorway behind a velvet rope. Is there a compromise that will allow visitors to have a richer experience? Has the option of putting down a runner on the floor and then roping off specific objects instead of full rooms been explored? A fantastic resource for this line of thinking is the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, by Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan; it is an in-depth exploration of the aforementioned ideas and much more.

One of the most detrimental ideas regarding tourism and museums is that it is purely a matter of advertising. There is a myth that if an institution can simply get its name/logo/website in front of tour operators and travel writers, its visitation will greatly increase. Building awareness is indeed important, but what are you building awareness of? Is the current visitor experience engaging and meaningful? Do the offerings reflect the communities around you? Direct engagement involves sharing ideas and fostering dialogue with visitors to help them shape their own meaningful experiences.

Scrolling down the lists of museum reviews on Trip Advisor or Yelp can be an eye-opening experience. In the realm of 1-star reviews you might find the occasional irate, perhaps unreasonable critic, but you might also encounter visitors who were deeply disappointed or so completely frustrated with their experience that they felt the need to publicly vent. If your institution is being blasted on social media, you need to respond briefly to let potential visitors know that you are taking their concerns seriously. Post your response for all to see and make every effort to talk personally to the visitor who made the complaint. Be sure not to get defensive or escalate an online argument; no institution is perfect, things happen, and people make mistakes. A complaint may run deeper than the experience of one visitor. The issue may reflect a larger problem, which when addressed might even turn a potential crisis into an opportunity for growth.

African Burial Ground, New York, NY. Photo credit: Cordell Reaves

Telling Complete Stories is Good Business

The tourism market has become a diverse marketplace, and despite staffing and research limitations, there are opportunities and incentives to delve deeply into all of the stories that have influenced your site. It is easy to be completely drawn into the standard “hero narrative” and remain there. This is a limited perspective that often excludes indigenous people, people of African descent, the LGBTQ community, women across cultures, and people from diverse ethnic or class backgrounds. Take everyone into consideration, especially if a particular group has had a minor role in your story thus far; everyone has a point of view that should be taken into consideration. This is not a matter of political correctness. It is good history, and it will expand your audience.

Complete stories require the exploration of all available research resources, including the memories of former inhabitants of the site. Narratives based on the records of wealthy land-owning families are often a starting point, but we must go beyond the written record. The Lott House in Brooklyn, New York, for example, recognizes that enslaved Africans did not typically keep a written record of their experiences and employs archeological evidence to show that enslaved Africans maintained their own distinct spiritual lives.[ii] There are similar archeological finds in other portions of the state, including a coin found further north in Albany, New York, that was turned into an amulet resembling a dkinga, which shows the shape of the universe in West African cosmology.

To attract and keep a more diverse audience, your story must have depth and reflect the experiences and culture of the visitors you hope to welcome into your institution. Enslaved people’s lives were never simply about the work they did. Their multi-faceted stories reflect their unique spiritual lives, foodways, music, and folklore, among many other things. By telling a multi-dimensional story, the ability to create points of connection may result in more meaningful experiences for visitors. It may be impossible for any visitor to truly understand the life of a person living in a state of slavery, but most people will understand an enslaved person’s desire for freedom, the need to pass on traditions to one’s children, or the longing to keep families intact, safe, and well.

What are the stories that have been ignored, undervalued, and deemed irrelevant? We are not just keepers of things, we are keepers of stories, history, and culture, and a portion of our histories are intangible. In a historic house environment, the intangible history may connect to the lives of enslaved people. The idea of delving into a complex story based on research and archeological findings from a similar site and time period with little-to-no direct material culture, strikes some as ill-advised and deeply problematic. But it is in many ways an opportunity to share history that is more balanced. We must untether ourselves from the notion that we can only tell stories if we have all of the belongings of the former inhabitants. Such projects may require outside partners, research, community outreach, and expertise in order to work. Finding alternative ways to share unexplored history is complicated, but can lead to a much richer visitor experience.

While many of the examples here focus on the African-American experience, the need to tell complete stories exists at nearly all institutions that interpret history. The important thing is to dig deep into the history of the site and surrounding community to shine a light on the groups that have been misunderstood, marginalized, or omitted from our shared history and to involve outside voices and perspectives in that process. Enlisting outside partners in this process is an important step. A community partner or advisory group must have a voice; a partner with no true input is not a partner. An advisor simply there to represent a group that has no substantive role is an empty gesture.

Diverse Audiences Matter

Imagine walking into a museum to visit a museum shop to pick up a gift for a friend. The place is nearly empty, the salesperson greets you as you enter the shop and begin to browse. As you scan a shelf, you notice that the security guard who was at the main entrance is now carefully searching the book volumes on a nearby shelf. As you make your way to the other side of the shop, you notice that he follows. Is this the kind of institution that you would continue to patronize or ever recommend? The aforementioned scenario is real and likely occurs more often than many museum professionals think or are comfortable acknowledging. Museums are public spaces for all people, and every person should feel valued. When we question whether or not a visitor belongs in a museum, we do a disservice to the public and we betray our core public service duties. We should not take for granted that everyone on staff understands that these are essential values of the organization.

African Americans spend $50 billion annually on travel and leisure experiences, and they support institutions that embrace diverse messaging and interpretation.[iii] Such institutions also serve as models for other organizations. Consider the case of Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. It is the state’s only plantation-based historic site focused entirely on the lives of enslaved Africans, and its honest interpretive approach has led to consistently high visitation and international media coverage. Whitney’s success has helped turn the standard plantation narrative on its head, and other plantation sites in the region have begun to tell more inclusive stories as a result.

Connecting with Tourism Professionals

Local or Regional Tourism Promotion Agencies or Agents (TPA) or Destination Marketing Organizations (DMO) are among the most direct lines to entering the tourism marketplace. It is the TPA’s main job to promote and sell the region as a travel destination. Make an appointment to see them and share your full event calendar, offer them a tour and an opportunity to evaluate your site, and inquire about a familiarization tour (“fam tour”). “Fam tours” are specifically for tour operators and travel bloggers/writers. They are designed to serve as extended, in-person advertisements for a region and often have a specific theme. Make a case why your museum should be included on these tours; tout your uniqueness, flexibility, and ways you can connect with various themes.

Think beyond the borders of what has traditionally been done and begin to consider what else can be done. Arts, culture, and history connect many different subjects. If the tourism marketplace includes food tours, then offer a history-related program exploring the foodways of your site. Consider a talk on what we can learn from dining and cooking scenes in art. Whether the topic is architecture, wine, or something else, dig deep within the knowledge of your staff and collection to tell a new story. Be forthright and make it clear to the TPA or DMO that you want them to visit and assess your institution. Accept the feedback, listen to their plans for further thematic tours and events, and suggest ways your institution can join in. Whether it is as a star attraction or a smaller supporting attraction, take the opportunity.

Choosing the right partner is not purely a matter of shared heritage; reputation, resources, and reciprocity are equally important. The same logic applied to choosing a board member or advisory group member can be applied to potential partners. Diversifying your organization at all levels is a critical concern. Does the prospective partner recognize that the organization needs to represent everyone in your community? Do this partner’s practices align with your core values? Does your partner have resources you lack regarding staff, facilities, or current offerings that will make programs attractive to diverse audiences? Establishing a relationship that works in tandem for both parties is critical to creating a sustainable partnership.

Investment and Return

There are few paths forward that do not involve shifting scant resources. Most institutions are not going to make a few changes and see their attendance double in two years. The benefit of taking your museum into the tourism marketplace is not solely a matter of increased visitation. Museums help raise the quality of life in communities and promote economic development—more businesses, more jobs, and rising property values. Restaurants, boutiques, and coffee shops all benefit from rising visitation. Local elected officials want to be associated with economic development and increased tourism. These relationships have the potential to yield benefits such as in-kind donations and increased media visibility. Most important may be the good will generated in your own community. The same new content that may draw an audience from abroad may give locals a reason to return or visit for the first time.

The important thing here is to keep moving forward. Remember the words of Star Trek Captain Jean Luc Picard, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.” Failure is part of the process; do not get discouraged. Evaluate, retool, and try again. There are all sorts of external factors and pressures that impact the tourism industry, many of which are beyond your control. Trying new things means accepting that there will likely be a mixture of both failures and successes. Failure is only final if you stop trying to move forward.


[i] “Interview with Kenneth Elliot,” Printer’s Ink, Vol. 197 (1941).

[ii] H. Arthur Bankoff, Christopher Ricciardi, and Alyssa Loorya, “Remembering Africa Under the Eaves,” Archeology 54, Number 3 (May/June 2001).

[iii] Fabiola Fleuranvil, “Black Travel Dollars Matter,” Huffington Post, May 23, 2017.

Suggested Readings

Hargrove, Cheryl. Cultural Heritage Tourism: Five Steps for Success and Sustainability. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AALSH, 2017.


~ Cordell Reaves is Historic Interpretation and Preservation Analyst, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

Historic House Museums

Paul Revere House, ca. 1900, showing local children and Filippo Goduti, the proprietor of the cigar company that rented space in the building from 1898-1901. Photo credit: Paul Revere House.

History museums of all types are facing the reality of a society where the meanings of inclusion, diversity, access, and equity are changing; the fact is, audiences are changing, too. The challenge of attracting and welcoming increasingly diverse audiences has proven particularly difficult for historic house museums, which have long been criticized—often with good reason—for having outdated, narrow, and static interpretation. According to an influential critic, the primary reasons people dislike house museums are that they present interpretation that lacks a connection to the present and feature stories of people who have nothing in common with most contemporary visitors.

Public historians and museum professionals have long known that historic sites need to be willing to change their structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of their communities. Yet, many have struggled to make these necessary institutional transformations. Encouragingly, solutions to these challenges lie within the very nature of house museums. Rather than focus on what is wrong with historic house museums, this essay explores the potential that house museums hold for telling new stories while making older, familiar stories more inclusive and relevant.

Opportunities for New Interpretations

Historic houses offer a broad canvas for the consideration of a variety of themes and for experimentation with new interpretive techniques. They provide the unique opportunity to share compelling stories in the most intimate of spaces, the home. They can, if allowed, reflect the lives of the many rather than just the privileged few.

While most historic house museums have become known for the tenure of a famous person or prominent family, or as examples of the work of a particular architect or representation of an important style or period, they possess much greater interpretive potential. These structures were built by people (native born, enslaved, or immigrant); they served as workspaces for owners and workers (enslaved or domestic); and, they provided a safe place where closeted lives were lived openly. They were the stage for many of life’s most poignant moments and relatable themes: birth, death, illness, education, foodways, and celebrations. Within the familiar context of living spaces, inhabitants from a wide range of economic situations and backgrounds moved in and out over many years. Although it is easy to fall into the trap of allowing interpretation to be held hostage to the legacy of one person or architectural feature, it is important to explore interpretive options that go beyond the expected. The prospect of doing so is intrinsically exciting and motivating for many public historians and museum professionals. However, if the promise of access to more compelling stories is not incentive enough, or the challenges seem too great, perhaps a more self-serving argument will make the case: interpretation and programming that resonate with a wider audience are simply good for business. Many museums have experienced improved attendance as well as buy-in from the community as a result of efforts to make interpretation and programming more inclusive.

Models of Inclusive Interpretation

There is no question that this sort of change, whether modest or dramatic, takes initiative and commitment. The good news is that more and more house museums are making the effort to reimagine and expand their interpretations; they are striving to find more inclusive stories to share the stage with “the elephant in the room” of the famous family or the institutional tradition of “the way things have always been done.” What follows are some examples of how organizations have changed the dynamic.

From its inception, President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., focused on making the past relevant to visitors. Its mission to “reveal the true Lincoln and continue the fight for freedom” is carried out in its interpretation, programs, and exhibitions, all of which seek “to inspire visitors to take their own path to greatness, and preserve this place as an authentic, tangible connection to the past and a beacon of hope for all who take up Lincoln’s unfinished work.” In this way Lincoln, the person, is transformed from a distant, romanticized hero into a call to action. Programs are offered that explore themes of injustice, division, and the importance of leadership. For example, an exhibition titled “American by Belief” introduces the public to the little-known fact that Lincoln championed policies that offered immigrants a chance to succeed based on the promise of the country’s founding principles.

For some time, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, has been using its historic house to present and consider themes related to social justice. Its mission — “to preserve and interpret Stowe’s Hartford home and the center’s historic collections, promote vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspire commitment to social justice and positive change”— makes the structure a container of ideas and thoughts rather than just a receptacle for interesting objects and famous figures. Through a significant reinterpretation effort and a reimagined tour that is described as “a conversational interactive tour where you can participate along with your guide,” all the house has to offer—stories, personalities, artifacts, and Victorian Gothic architecture—is used to promote discussion among visitors about social issues that resonate today. In this way, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, have been transformed into even more effective tools for exploring the connections between past and present.

Another example of a dramatic shift in interpretive focus is the former Royall House Museum in Medford, Massachusetts. This high-style Georgian mansion was known as one of the finest colonial-era buildings in New England and it was precisely for this reason that the few hundred people who visited the house each year came. The interpretation was centered on the architecture of the home and the lives of the Royall family, loyalists who amassed great wealth in the triangular trade. The most compelling part of the story was the discussion of the lives of loyalists in New England where patriot stories generally rule.

What wasn’t discussed was the fact that the property included the only remaining slave quarters in the northern United States or that the Royalls were the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts. The museum is now the “Royall House and Slave Quarters.” This name change alone alerts visitors that the story now gives equal weight to both the wealthy loyalist family and the enslaved Africans who made the Royalls’ lifestyle possible. The shift in perspective has transformed interpretation at the site and, along with programming relating the past to current issues, has helped the museum become more relevant and inclusive and has widened its audience considerably. In some ways, confronting the realities of slavery and the slave economy is more surprising in the North than it is in the South. Yet it is a crucial topic to explore and share with visitors.

Strategies for Implementation

Sound simple? Not in the least! When an organization like the Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters embraces the “what if we look into these other stories” epiphany, the true work has only begun. After much debate the museum’s board undertook a strategic planning process that resulted in a new mission and a new name. Careful consideration was given to how to make the case to board and staff, accomplish the necessary research, involve community stakeholders, and finally, how to prepare staff and volunteers to deliver these new stories to a surprised, or even resistant, audience.

What strategies should you employ to begin the process of making your historic sites more meaningful to all people?

Consider all the residents and consider the issues.

An initial step is to begin to give equal value to all the knowable moments in the long history of the home you run: How many families have lived or worked there? Who built the house or worked on the grounds? How might their stories be added to the current interpretation? What are the topics that meet your mission and are relevant to and can benefit your community? It was not a hard stretch for the Paul Revere House to begin shifting its interpretation by re-imagining one room as a reflection of the first owner of the house, a wealthy merchant in seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Boston who had at least one enslaved person supporting his lifestyle. Moreover, in the over 100 years after Revere’s departure from the residence, the house served as home to owners, workers, and tenants, many of whom reflected the change in the neighborhood as immigrant populations came into Boston’s North End and rented or acquired property. The stories that unfolded at the site during the mid nineteenth century included those of a single woman named Lydia Loring who supported herself through real estate deals and taking in boarders, and later, the Wilkies, an Irish couple, who ran the Revere House as a boarding house for sailors and had a saloon on the first floor.

In addition, for each resident it is important to consider what was going on in the neighborhood, the country, and the world at the time. How might themes, such as economic fluctuations, war, political or ethnic conflict, slavery, women’s rights and roles, LGBTQ rights, religion, and education, allow you to seamlessly expand your story and relate to how we view the same topics today? These avenues provide additional hooks to engage visitors in ways that go beyond the story of one house, person, collection, or architectural style. This type of analysis also offers different lenses through which to consider the life of even a well-known resident. 

Involve your stakeholders and community.

If you are thinking of making a bold change or just a small one, it is imperative to work with your community. Arrange for opportunities to invite community members and key stakeholders to engage in open discussions about your ideas and to solicit their input before any plans are set. You may find you are overlooking some local sources of information, you may have inadvertently and unnecessarily stepped on some toes, or you may discover that rumors about what you are considering may be spreading and causing unwarranted concerns. Early buy-in from informed constituents may help you make the changes you seek. Or, if there are serious concerns or challenges ahead, it is far better to be prepared to address these issues than to be blindsided later in the process.

The Haymarket Project features photographs of the market, vendors (pushcarts and shops), workers, and customers collected over the course of an entire year to document the market. Oral histories reflect the stories of longtime vendors and more recent immigrants who have created a wide-ranging cross-section of cultures at Haymarket. Alyssa “Sina” Chhim came from Battambang, Cambodia, in 1982. She began working at stands and later a shop in the market. Sina got her own stand in October 2014. Photo credit: Courtesy Historic New England

Cultivate meaningful partnerships.

Partnerships, if mutually beneficial, can show that your historic house is sincere about being more open to new ideas and welcoming to new audiences. Since one-time deals rarely produce deep and sustainable institutional change, working with other organizations in the community is essential. Historic New England regularly engages with diverse groups through its Everyone’s History program. One such effort, the Haymarket Project, involved a series of short films, an exhibition, and a publication, which documented the outdoor market’s rich immigrant history. Interviews with longtime Italian vendors, newer vendors from more recent immigrant groups, and customers, along with photographs—all collected over the course of a year—revealed the daily life at the market, changes over time, and the challenges of encroaching development. Through walking tours, which include many of the vendors telling their own stories, this partnership has endured beyond the initial programs.

Research, research, research.

Once you know what story or group you want to explore, you will need to do the necessary research. You may find that suddenly you are seeing things that you missed. A cone of sugar displayed innocently on a table in a kitchen is, of course, evidence of the owner’s sweet tooth but is also evidence of the impact of the slave economy in Paul Revere’s Boston.

Artifacts have multiple layers of meaning depending on what questions you ask. Collections, photographs, and archives have, in some cases, been subject to bias in how they were cataloged, so every effort should be made to look for information in unexpected places.

Jennifer Pustz, author of Voices from the Back Stairs, suggests including the stories of people who are underrepresented in written sources. She advises starting with what little is known and documented about the person in question and being honest about what is not known and why that might be (privacy, social class, etc.). Research about an individual or individuals can, with care, be supplemented with generic information that is appropriate to the period and area.

At Historic New England’s Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, researchers used other sources, such as oral histories, to interpret LBGTQ history when pertinent records did not survive. Where possible, reach out to the descendants of the people, including servants and workers, who called your property home. You will most likely see them surprised and then thrilled that you care about their family story. The Revere House reached out successfully to the family of F.A. Goduti, who ran a cigar store in the house, after one of his relatives recognized him in a photograph in a display.

Archeological collections and reports along with newly initiated investigations provide important information. Excavations at the Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters proved a treasure trove for reinterpretation, while similar investigations at the Paul Revere House provided insight into the lives of the immigrants who called the property home during the nineteenth century. Find ways to include interns in new research. Over the years the Paul Revere House has not only encouraged interns to do research on the various immigrant groups that lived in the neighborhood, but also published their work as articles in its newsletter.

Seek assistance.

If the topics that emerge take you into unfamiliar territory, seek the assistance of trusted scholars or museum colleagues. Be mindful to include Native American scholars or specialists if you are researching your site for connections to indigenous peoples. The same holds true for research pertaining to racial, ethnic, sexual, and class identities as well as religious groups.

If board members, staff, or volunteers don’t understand the value of fleshing out the stories connected to either your famous moment or lesser-known episodes, include them in the process. Use strategic planning to explore the opportunity to reach new audiences with a new vision. Reach out to other house museums that have had success in making changes and ask for advice.

Build staff and board buy-in.

It is important to ensure that your board and staff reflect the community you serve. This kind of change requires institutional will. To involve people with your historic site, you may need to first show good faith by taking some programmatic risks in order to convince your community that your organization is truly embracing change. We are not saying this is easy and it does take time. In addition to including different racial and ethnic groups, welcoming new voices to the board or staff also means being more cognizant of age, gender, sexual orientation, and/or people with differing abilities. There are resources out there to help; MASS Action, is a central point for resources, learning, and communication between institutions engaging in promoting diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility. Its toolkit offers resources for use in creating greater equity within the museum field.

Visitors respond to seeing diversity in staffing. This shows that the organization reflects multiple perspectives and is open to a range of ideas. Historic New England advertises staff positions and internships in both traditional outlets and non-traditional sources. The organization offers paid diversity internships to students of color to encourage them to pursue careers in the field by promoting the program to schools and universities with substantial populations of historically under-represented and underserved students.


If historic house museums want to be relevant, inclusive, and diverse, they need to diversify their boards and staffs and work closely with their communities. House museums need to step back and look at the stories they are telling and the ones that remain unexplored. Whether at the Paul Revere House, where many of the changes have been real but subtle; or the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, where a change in interpretive techniques now invites discussion; to the major change at the Royall House and Slave Quarters, which now gives equal weight to the interpretation of the enslaved population and the wealthy loyalist family: all have produced richer, more compelling stories. These varied tales of human experience offer visitors from all walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, and lifestyles a way to see themselves in both the lives of the famous and of the less well known. 

Suggested Readings

van Balgooy, Max A., ed. Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2015.

Bench, Raney. Interpreting Native American History and Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2014.

Ferentinos, Susan. Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2015.

Forum on Historic Site Stewardship in the 21st Century. National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2007.

Gallas, Kristin L., and James DeWolf Perry, eds. Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2014.

LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study. National Park Service.

Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Turino, Kenneth C., and Max van Balgooy, eds. Reinventing the Historic House Museum, New Approaches and Proven Solutions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2019.


~ Kenneth C. Turino is Manager of Community Partnerships and Resource Development at Historic New England and Nina Zannieri is Executive Director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association.

U.S. Founders

Each year, Mount Vernon collaborates with the local group Black Women United for Action to hold a commemoration ceremony at the burial site for Mount Vernon’s enslaved people. Photo credit: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Who counts among the nation’s “Founders?” Some lists of “Founding Fathers” (a term coined by then-Senator Warren G. Harding in a speech to the 1916 Republican National Convention) restrict membership in that elite group to a defined set of affluent and influential white men: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.[i] Other, broader conceptualizations encompass the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the 55 “Framers” who crafted the U.S. Constitution.[ii] Still-larger definitions take in organizers like Massachusetts goldsmith and engraver Paul Revere, or soldiers like South Carolina’s John Laurens. For many, the term “Founder” has generally applied to the relatively small number of white men of authority and privilege who led the political, legal, and military effort to establish the United States of America as an independent nation.

Yet, particularly over the past forty years, key accounts of the Revolution increasingly emphasized new critical perspectives on the Revolutionary era while uncovering stories of everyday men and women—white, black, and Native American—whose roles in the rebellion were critical to the independence movement. (See Suggested Readings below.) As the historiography of the Revolution advanced, these new methods and priorities have enlarged our understanding of the founding moment and the wide range of people who contributed to it. History scholarship now takes a broader view of who constitutes a “Founder” and asks more encompassing questions about how Americans drove and experienced the founding. Public historians committed to more inclusive interpretations of the Founders and their world are now well supported by more than four decades of research that situates them in broader contexts and suggests new directions for interpretive planning.

Any nation’s founders become objects of patriotic veneration, and so it is unsurprising that this group of individuals became the subjects of numerous monuments, memorials, and historic sites. Among the first sites in the United States to become museums were Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh, Hasbrouck House, and his Virginia home at Mount Vernon. Such sites aimed to cultivate awe and reverence, emphasizing the U.S. Founders’ larger-than-life status as intellectual giants, political visionaries, and moral leaders. The motives and aspirations of the men and women who created these historic sites, as well as the continuing expectations and desires of visitors, have made efforts to complicate those interpretations in the wake of ongoing scholarship and cultural change challenging.

Expanding the Meaning of “Founders”

Historians continue to expand the meaning of “Founders.” Even the term has been amended from the original “Founding Fathers” so as not to actively exclude women. Interpretation at historic sites associated with this group has expanded to take into account new scholarship and respond to social and cultural criticisms, though the path to new interpretive strategies has not been smooth. An important and instructive example is that of the President’s House and Liberty Bell Pavilion in Philadelphia, which became the scene of heated public debate at the turn of the twenty-first century when historians and Philadelphia residents learned that the exhibit to accompany the new installation of the Liberty Bell would not confront the histories of slavery that shared that ground. Public historians alongside activist Philadelphians pressured the National Park Service to reconsider their plans, forcing both Pavilion exhibitry and interpretation at the site of the President’s House to confront the tension between liberty and enslavement that shaped the nation’s founding.

Efforts to acknowledge roles played by African Americans in the nation’s founding date back at least as early as William Cooper Nell’s 1855 study The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. In the 1880s, pressure from Boston’s black community led to a monument honoring Crispus Attucks, the Revolution’s “first martyr,” and, in the early twentieth century, Carter G. Woodson’s work through the Association for the Study of African American Life and History spurred expanded research on black people’s experiences in early America.[iii] In the 1960s, research leading to the creation of Boston’s Black Heritage Trail commenced, inviting visitors to consider sites beyond those linked by the Freedom Trail, including the home of African American revolutionary war veteran George Middleton. In 1970, among the early efforts of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C. was the exhibition “Black Patriots of the American Revolution,” and, later in the decade, attention to Black Founders surged in and around the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition and accompanying catalog The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770-1800, by Sidney Kaplan, aimed to “restore to the national memory an historic fact that has been long suppressed or forgotten—the living presence of black men and women during the thirty years that stretched from the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks…to the conspiracy of Gabriel Prosser in Virginia at the turn of the century.” More recently, a 2008 exhibition at Philadelphia’s The Library Company explored the lives of “Black Founders,” including scientist and inventor Benjamin Banneker, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Richard Allen, Prince Hall, James Forten, Sarah Mapps Douglass, and Daniel Coker. Moreover, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, includes significant treatment of African Americans and the nation’s founding in the permanent exhibition.

Slavery and the Founders

In recent years, museum professionals have been particularly focused on the need to address the subject of slavery in historic site interpretation. Sites associated with U.S. Founders have responded to mounting pressure from critics to interpret connections to slavery. African Americans had long been aware of the many ways the Founders were complicit in the system of slavery, but many historians and historical institutions minimized the degree to which the independence movement was entwined with slavery. Longstanding cultural impulses to valorize the Founders persisted in both formal and informal interpretive practice. In recent years, sites like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and James Madison’s Montpelier, have worked to foreground histories of enslavement in their interpretation. These sites have committed decades of research to form exhibitions and interpretive programming that wrestle with the Founders’ ownership of, and interactions with, enslaved people. At the same time, the sites continue to struggle with the challenges of interpreting this history. In 2012, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation mounted Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty at the National Museum of American History. Monticello’s efforts to explore the history of slavery are particularly noteworthy and fraught given the site’s long-standing unease with interpreting Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. In 2016, George Washington’s Mount Vernon opened Lives Bound Together, the first major exhibition there to treat enslavement at the estate. James Madison’s Montpelier opened The Mere Distinction of Colour in 2017, which asks critical questions not only about James Madison’s slaveholding legacy but about the impact of slavery on ongoing racial struggles today.[iv]

The latter examples, in particular, engaged descendant and stakeholder communities in the development of interpretive materials—difficult but necessary work. For instance, at Montpelier, descendants and stakeholders (defined broadly) participated in the research process and helped make meaning from those findings; “The most important thing about being inclusive,” Vice President for Museum Programs Elizabeth Chew has said, “is that it allows us to engage African American voices in the process of interpreting their ancestral story and the story of our founding.” Sites like Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier also include in their online interpretative material not only content addressing the history of slavery, but timelines sharing the history of the site’s engagement with this subject matter—a useful practice that requires sites to examine and interpret their own institutional histories. In some cases, sites also share the raw research data underlying interpretation, making it possible for audiences to check facts, dig deeper, and put the work to new purposes; one good example is the database made public in conjunction with Lives Bound Together.

Making Connections to Current Issues

Boston’s Old South Meeting House—like Hartford’s Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, President Lincoln’s Cottage, and other forward-thinking sites—embraces a different strategy, drawing on the site’s history to frame a mission that engages present-day events. As Sarah Hudson has observed,

Rather than defining itself solely as the “Birthplace of the Boston Tea Party,” the Old South Meeting House connects its history to “protest, revolution, and freedom of speech and extends that history well beyond the Revolutionary era. Its interpretive timeline draws attention to the voices and stories of women, African Americans, immigrants, and others. In a sense, the [site] offers a historical interpretation more rooted in an idea than in a specific period of time.[v]

Even museums focused on the distant past can learn from new approaches that engage current and potential audiences in the development of content; if prospective visitors cannot contribute information about the eighteenth-century past, they can certainly convey their questions and concerns about the revolutionary underpinnings of current events, which can help shape programming and interpretation.

Inclusive Institutions

Museums and other historical institutions can take steps to achieve the institutional body language that signals a welcoming and inclusive environment. In the case of the Founders, such steps often more accurately reflect the historical content being conveyed. For instance, in talking about family life, sites should not employ exclusive language, or make assumptions based on normative expectations. Professionals committed to more inclusive museum practice recommend that sites not use language that projects assumptions about family relationships; “family inclusive language” recommends, for instance, swapping assumptions about “Mom” and “Dad” for “grownups” or “adults,” and it is likewise useful not to overemphasize the so-called “nuclear” family. When working in eighteenth-century contexts, such approaches may in fact be more historically appropriate, as blended, large, and complex families and households involving parents and stepparents, siblings, step-siblings, cousins, grandparents, unrelated caregivers, and others were not the exception, but rather the rule, in early America.

Interpretive staff working to craft an inclusive experience should remain mindful not to create “affective inequality,” which occurs when docents paint richly evocative pictures of, and invite visitors to imagine, life for the typically white, affluent, and best documented figures associated with a site. This approach does not often give equivalent attention to the less privileged figures who lived and worked there.[vi] Interpretive staff should recognize that visitors will not necessarily identify with the powerful families headed by the Founders or the guests who crossed their thresholds; and, visitors should be encouraged to consider the experiences of all of the people impacted by the site.

Inclusive Interpretation

Turning attention to the Founders themselves, any treatment of these leaders should also take into account their full range of lived experience. Thinking systematically about the neighborhoods in which they lived, and the laborers—paid, unpaid, and enslaved—who made their lives possible, are all ways to work toward a more inclusive understanding of their experiences. In many cases, it is helpful to look hard, in a step-by-step manner, at processes, and how any given task was accomplished. For instance, in looking at George Washington’s inauguration suit, we can tell stories about the many hands involved in its creation, from the Connecticut men and women who spun and wove the wool to the New York tailors who stitched the garments together, to the enslaved men and women who laundered and maintained those garments. After the inaugural ceremony, Washington changed from his politically-necessary American-made suit into stylish London-made apparel for further festivities. How do politics influence fashion today? Who makes the clothes we wear, and does that matter?

In addition to contemplating implications of race and class, as well as privilege and access to labor, inclusive approaches to the Founders also contemplate histories of sexuality, gender, and the body. Accounting for the full range of lived experience also means looking for narratives of ability and disability. Most people are neither “abled” nor “disabled,” but rather move in and out of those categories at different times of their lives and for different reasons—a fact as true in the era of the Founders as it is today. How did early American men and women, as well as members of their household, their circle of friends, and others, cope with the effects of injury, sickness, aging, and other physical conditions that compromise physical and cognitive ability?

Part of the challenge of inclusion when it comes to the Founders is that there is often an abstract quality to the content matter, as audiences interested in this subject are often drawn, if sometimes in unstated ways, to the history of beliefs, ideas, and ideologies. It can be easy, in interpreting complex arguments, to oversimplify complicated debates, and to confine individuals to polar positions. But it is rarely the case that people’s ideas are so rigid. Instead, ask, how did their ideas evolve over time? How, when, and why did these leaders change their minds? Where were there inconsistencies? Also, it is important to expose blind spots. Where did their analyses fall short? As Mount Vernon Associate Curator Jessie Macleod notes, “efforts to explain away Washington’s slaveholding by declaring him ‘a man of his time’ elide the existence of his contemporaries who were passionate abolitionists (not to mention Washington’s own complex feelings toward slavery).”[vii]

Inclusive interpretation also maintains a sense of contingency. No one knew, in the eighteenth century, that the so-called “patriots” wouldn’t hang for treason: they were not always heroes in their day. Sites should be careful not to suggest that independence was foreordained, as if the choices being made were part of some larger and certain design. Men and women at all levels of society were engaged in constant—and often frantic—calculation, trying to figure how to navigate these dangerous waters in ways that would minimize danger and maximize benefits. There was nothing “inevitable,” for instance, about how Native nations would fare as a result of the British empire’s conflict with its North American colonies; as visitors to sites like Fort Stanwix National Monument learn, indigenous people were an active presence, and essential partners among both rebel and British leadership.

Museums adopting more inclusive approaches should be prepared for backlash. The newest entry into the interpretation of the founding moment is the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which opened in April 2017. In its review of the site’s exhibits, the Wall Street Journal—noting that “historical scholarship has become vastly more inclusive”—took the museum’s leadership to task for working to “de-sacralize the Revolution,” and prioritizing inclusion over the Revolution’s “symbolic and aspirational power.”[viii] And so museum-goers are “reminded here not just of higher principles but of how they fell short for those who were enslaved—some 400,000 in 1776 growing to nearly four million by 1860—or for those who preceded the colonists, American Indians….This Revolution poses dilemmas, not doctrinal clarity.” Likewise, Thom Nickels, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, calls this “middle-school history told through a lens of identity politics.”[ix] But, as the museum’s curator, Philip C. Mead, explained, “The goal of the museum is to give the Revolution back to the people. Since people always change, there’s no telling where this Revolution might go.”[x]


[i] On Harding, see Robert Tracy McKenzie’s post “The Founding Fathers and Warren G. Harding,” citing R. B. Bernstein, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (Oxford University Press, 2009), on the blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home <>.

[ii] Several historians offer redefinitions of the term in “How Do You Define ‘Founding Fathers’?” in the online Journal of the American Revolution, December 1, 2015,

[iii] See Mitch Kachun, First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); and Pero Gaglo Dagbovie, The Early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

[iv] Carson Bear, “‘The Mere Distinction of Colour’: Telling the Story of Slavery at Montpelier,” November 1, 2017,

[v] Sarah Hudson, “More voices” in Boston’s public history,” History@Work, January 27, 2015,

[vi] See E. Arnold Modlin, Derek H. Alderman and Glenn w. Gentry, “Tour Guides as Creators of Empathy: The Role of Affective Inequality in Marginalizing the Enslaved at Plantation House Museums,” Tourist Studies 11(1) 3–19. My thanks to Jessie MacLeod for alerting me to this scholarship.

[vii] Jessie MacLeod to author, 4 January 2018.

[viii] Edward Rothstein, “A Politically Correct Revolution,” WSG, April 12, 2017.

[ix] Nickels, “What the Museum of the American Revolution Gets Wrong,” April19, 2017,

[x] Quoted in Ibid.

Suggested Readings

The first flowering of modern scholarship to offer broader conceptions of the founding era included books like Robert Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World (1976); Gary Nash’s Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (1974) and The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (1979); Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (1980); Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic (1980); and Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (1982). These works were in time joined by others that likewise sought to widen the circle of founders and complicate popular understandings of the Revolutionary era: Woody Holton’s Forced Founders (1999), Alfred Young’s Shoemaker and the Tea Party (1999), Saul Cornell’s The Other Founders (1999), and Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers (2005), to name just a few. Scholarship that placed founders within systems of enslavement and racial oppression includes Harry Weincek’s Imperfect God: George Washington, his Slaves, and the Creation of America (2003) and Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008). Other work on African Americans and the nation’s founding includes LaGarrett J. King’s 2014 essay “More Than Slaves: Black Founders, Benjamin Banneker, and Critical Intellectual Agency” and curator Philip Lapsansky’s “Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic.”

Other historians have emphasized histories of sexuality (e.g., Thomas Foster, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past, 2014), explored the founders on matters of faith (e.g. Denis Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, 2013), and the environment (e.g., Andrea Wulf, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, 2011). Scholarship that considers health and the body includes Jeanne Abrams, Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health (2013), which illuminates intersections between personal experience, political philosophy, and thinking about the nation’s health care. Still other historians have worked to add complexity to how we understand the evolution of political thought, and political documents. For instance, a rich scholarly literature (e.g. Janet L. Polasky, Revolutions without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World, 2015) has emerged that situates the Founders within robust transatlantic conversations about liberty, equality, sovereignty, natural rights, and citizenship that stoked independence movements not only in Britain’s North American colonies, but also France, Haiti, and Ireland as well as Central and South America. Other scholars, like Michael Klarman, The Framers’ Coup (2016) have emphasized how our founding documents emerged from the authors acting not as a united body of elites, but as men with differing priorities and perspectives representing competing interests.

Several websites are particularly useful to inclusive interpretations of the founding moment. The Founders Online makes available the papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, which public historians can mine for content related to their particular interpretive goals. Another web resource that makes available primary source material is the database published in conjunction with the exhibition Lives Bound Together. The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History publishes short writings about the political and cultural history of the founding era; the blog is “dedicated to providing content of general interest to other early Americanists and those interested in early American history, a well as a forum for discussion of relevant historical and academic topics.”

Historians at work in settings that are related to the nation’s founding may also wish to consult histories of public history practice that describe how other professionals, past and present, have grappled with similar challenges. Though this list is by no means exhaustive, some especially useful points of entry include:

Aden, Roger C. Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015.

Burns, Andrea.  From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Bruggeman, Seth C. Review: “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pa. Journal of American History 100, No. 1 (June 2013): 155–158.

Horton, Lois E. “Avoiding History: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Uncomfortable Public Conversation on Slavery,” in Horton and Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 135-150.

Kachun, Mitch. First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Lawler, Jr., Edward. “The President’s House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126, No. 1 (Jan., 2002): 5-95.

Monteiro, Lyra D. “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.” The Public Historian Vol. 38 No. 1 (February 2016): 93.

Ogline, Jill Titus. “‘Creating Dissonance for the Visitor’: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy.” The Public Historian 26.3 (Summer 2004): 49-57.

Rogers, Ashley. “Incorporating Descendent Community Voices: The Whitney Plantation.” In Robert P. Connolly and Elizabeth A. Bollwerk, eds., Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset: A Practical Guide. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Schocket, Andrew M. Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution. New York: New York University Press, 2017.

Tyson, Amy M. and Azie Mira Dungey. “‘Ask a Slave’ and Interpreting Race on Public History’s Front Line (Interview with Azie Mira Dungey).” The Public Historian 36, No. 1 (February 2014): 36-60.


~ Marla R. Miller directs the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she teaches courses in Museum and Historic Site Interpretation, History Communication, and the Art and Craft of Biography. A historian of early American women, work, and material culture, she is the author of The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (UMass Press, 2006) and Betsy Ross and the Making of America (Holt, 2010). She also consults and collaborates with a wide range of museums and historic sites, and is a co-author of the 2012 report Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, a multi-year study funded by the NPS Chief Historian’s office and hosted by the Organization of American Historians. She is currently serving as the president of the National Council on Public History.