Outside the Buildings The possibilities of interpreting landscape change through time at Public history sites

Public history sites tend to focus on the buildings.

Why not?

After all, the buildings have often been preserved or reconstructed from an earlier time.

They provide wonderful ways to show visitors what life was like in the past and enable visitors to feel like they are stepping back in time.

Photo (right): A costumed interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg welcomes visitors into a historic building; colonialwilliamsburg.org

This is Historic Stagville, a state historic site near Durham, North Carolina, that works to interpret the cultures, lives, and contributions of enslaved people in the U.S. South.

The interior of this cabin built in the 1840s by and for enslaved people has been carefully re-furnished to give visitors a sense of how enslaved people would have lived.

A straw mattress and bundles of herbs let visitors see how enslaved people lived at Stagville in the 1840s. Photo credit: TripAdvisor

Stagville prides itself on centering the experiences of the plantation's enslaved community, and tour guides emphasize both the horrors of chattel slavery and the incredible strength and contributions of enslaved people.

Despite Stagville's work to preserve and furnish original buildings, and the site's goal to interpret experiences of enslaved people, however, one aspect of the site today looks very different from how it did in the 1840s:

The landscape.

Let's return to Horton Grove.

In the 1840s, enslaved women who lived in this house would have maintained a swept dirt yard around it instead of this closely-mown grass.

This photograph of Duke Homestead (another of Durham's state historic sites) shows remnants of a swept dirt yard around Washington Duke's house.

Swept dirt yards were a common landscape practice in West Africa, and became ubiquitous in the U.S. South for decades. This vital contribution of enslaved people to the Southern landscape has been obscured at Stagville.

In addition, while these houses are today surrounded by trees, the land around them would have been cleared. That meant no shade in summer, and clear sight lines between these houses and the house of the white owning family on a nearby hill.

Even though the buildings are original, today's modern landscape hides two important realities:

  1. White surveillance built into plantation landscapes
  2. African cultural survival that shaped the U.S. South

However, when landscape change over time is incorporated into guided tours, it can further engage visitors. Take this example of a guided tour experienced by the author in July 2019:

“It looks like a postcard now, but in 1840 it would have been really different. It would have been loud, it would have been dusty, it would have been hot. It would have been tense.”

- Stagville tour guide describing the owning family's house on a tour in July 2019

By not only describing how the site would have looked, but also using evocative, sensory words like "hot," "dusty," and "tense," the tour guide activated his audience's imaginations.

All of the participants on that tour reflected afterwards that they wanted to learn more about how Stagville used to look.

Implications for public history:

  • Modern landscapes can obscure marginalized realities. By researching your site's landscape over time, you might uncover hidden histories that enrich your site interpretation and engage a broader audience over time.
  • Don't ignore your site's landscape! Research how your site used to look and incorporate these differences into tours and waysides. If you don't have any old photos of your site, evocative descriptions are equally useful.
  • Visitors' imaginations are powerful tools for engagement. Empowering visitor imaginations engages people intellectually and physically, with exciting results.
  • There are many stories here. Sharing how your site's landscape has changed with visitors allows you to not only discover new aspects of your site, but bring visitors "behind the scenes" of public history work if you discuss why the site looks as it does today.

This research is based on my M.A. thesis for the Department of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, April 2020, entitled: "Unsettling Authenticity, Queering Landscapes: The Role of Nature at Three State Historic Sites in Durham, North Carolina."


Mary Biggs; Colonial Williamsburg