Query re: Public Interpretation in Archaeology

Carol McDavid (dutch@SAM.NEOSOFT.COM)
Mon, 31 Oct 1994 18:01:58 -0600

I am posting this "request for help" to several lists (Anthro-l, Museum-l,
Histarch, Heritage, and Publhist), and apologize in advance for
duplications. This is a fairly long post, so I will try to get to the crux
of the message quickly, and those of you who are interested can read the
background info!

My question is --- do you know of any plantation (or other) sites which
substantively involve the descendants of the people who lived on the site
in planning the public interpretation of the site? By "descendants", I
mean both African-American and European-American descendants, especially in
the case of plantation sites. By "involve" I mean positions on non-profit
Boards, advisory committees, etc.

Other than Dorothy Redford's work at Somerset Place (which I know and
admire) I don't know of any other plantation site which attempts to involve
the *descendants* of the original residents in an active way. Can anyone
give me some examples? I would, after receiving leads from you, query the
sites which have experience in this area and report back to the list with
the results, so e-mail or snail-mail addresses would be helpful. If all
you have is a site name and location that's OK too. I do know of several
sites which offer "inclusive" interpretations (Williamsburg, Stagville
Center, etc.) but not of any which include the descendants in the planning
and execution of those interpretations. However, I'm always searching for
more examples of "inclusive" interpretations, so feel free to send those
too if you know of some. My e-mail address follows so that you can
respond to me directly.

You may recall that some months ago there was a post to museum-l on a
similar topic, and the person who gathered information then has expressed a
willingness to share some of her data with me, which should be interesting.
However, our situation is bit different from the what I've perceived to be
the usual "community participation" kind of scenario, at least it seems to
me that it is. Hence this posting.

*Here is the background for those interested*: I am writing a master's
thesis (Anthropology, University of Houston) on the feasibility of doing a
public interpretation of the archaeology of the Levi Jordan Plantation in
Brazoria, TX. This interpretation could take any or all of several forms
--- archaeological museum, ongoing site tours, educational programming with
local schools, living history museum, etc. The archaeology is primarily
concerned with the part of the site which housed the slave and tenant
cabins and has been underway for the past 9 years under the direction of
Dr. Ken Brown at UH. Those of you already familiar with the project know
that the archaeology itself is remarkable in the *huge* the amount of
information it has yielded on the everyday lives of 19th-century
African-American slaves and tenant farmers. Some of the artifacts are now
on tour with the "Before Freedom Came: African-American Life in the
Antebellum South" exhibition mounted by the Smithsonian. Many people --
local and otherwise -- have expressed an interest in seeing a permanent
exhibition (with related programming) on the site when excavations are

My ethnographic research has revealed that many descendants of the
plantation's residents still live in the area surrounding the plantation
site. In many cases, the social and political relationships that existed
in the 19th century still exist today --- the area is rural, racially
segregated, etc. The present owners of the plantation are direct
descendants of the original owner, and many descendants of the
African-Americans who moved away from the plantation in the 19th century
still live within 5 miles of the plantation. Although the owners are
committed to an interpretation which would focus on the history of the
African-Americans whose labor made the plantation one of the largest in the
state, they also feel that no public interpretation can, or should, take
place without the active involvement of the descendants of these
African-Americans. There seems to be some tentative support in the
community for the project, and I'm now looking for examples of similar work
to share with the people I'm working with. As you can see, my research is
both "applied" and "basic" --- I am taking a proactive approach, in terms
of community involvement and education, but I am also using traditional
ethnographic methods to try to understand how people view themselves, the
history of their community, and their place in that history.

Thanks in advance for your help, and for your patience in reading this long

Carol McDavid