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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mary Biggs; Colonial Williamsburg