Museum professionals often come from outside the communities most affected by the histories they teach. To counteract the perspective created by this tendency, a group of ten descendants of men, women, and children enslaved at Highland are engaged in an initiative of “shared authority” of interpreting the site’s history. The project is based on the idea that the descendants whose ancestors were enslaved, and whose family histories bear the injustices of race in our country have an important voice in determining what stories are shared at Highland, and how those stories are told. Our collaboration makes the stories more relevant to our community and more truthful. A grant to William & Mary from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supports this work and its connection with student learning on campus.
Our current collaborations include descendant input on site re-interpretation, with new exhibits planned in consultation with the Council of Descendant Advisors. We have also begun recording oral histories, preserving the valuable stories of living generations, and the ones that came before. Our discussions are sometimes about history, and they are often about the present, and even about the future. We talk about a just society, and the ways we can create a world with greater understanding of one another’s experiences.
Descendant advisors have spoken publicly about the work, have engaged in conversation across the William & Mary campus, with students and administrators, and have led workshops for Charlottesville City Schools teachers on Difficult History.
Our direction is shaped by the National Summit on Teaching Slavery, where some of the group participated and helped with the follow-on work of creating a rubric for descendant engagement https://www.montpelier.org/learn/tackling-difficult-history. We strive to follow the rubric toward best practices.
Most importantly, we strive to learn from one another, and we value the richness of experience in our intentional conversations.