ORANGE, Va., June 5, 2017 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- James Madison's Montpelier, the home of the father of the Constitution, today debuted The Mere Distinction of Colour: an exhibition created to highlight the reality of the institution of slavery in the United States. Inspired by a 1787 Madison quote, the exhibition is unique in that visitors will hear the stories of those enslaved at Montpelier told by their living descendants and explore how the legacy of slavery impacts today's conversations about race, identity and human rights.
The Mere Distinction of Colour offers visitors insight into the economic, ideological, and political factors that cemented slavery in the newly-created American nation and its Constitution, and connects the past to contemporary discussions about human and civil rights through the real-life stories of the enslaved.
"As a cultural institution engaged in the interpretation of slavery, we must have a more holistic conversation about freedom, equality and justice," said Kat Imhoff, president and CEO of James Madison's Montpelier. "Without understanding slavery and its resulting impacts, we do not understand the true roots of the establishment of our country. An essential part of understanding slavery and its legacy was engaging the descendants of the enslaved people here at Montpelier to help us interpret slavery in its most real terms."
The visitor experience
The exhibition builds on 17 years of archaeological excavation, documentary research, oral history and cultural exploration. Visitors move through the cellars of the main Madison house to four reconstructed slave dwellings and work buildings in the South Yard. Descendant testimony features prominently throughout these spaces. Through artifacts – many on display for the first time – uncovered by teams of professional archaeologists, Montpelier descendants, and members of the public in Montpelier's public archaeology programs, exhibition visitors can understand how Montpelier's enslaved community lived. Boston-based Proun Design and Northern Light Productions led the design of the interactive components, multimedia, and artifact displays.
"To truly honor the experience of those enslaved at Montpelier, our curatorial team made purposeful decisions about its content and design," said Elizabeth Chew, Vice President for Museum Programs. "Using the testimony of those descended from Montpelier's enslaved community, as well as research and tangible artifacts, the exhibition conveys how slaves were not simply a function of labor: they had families, complex social communities, owned household goods, clothes, and tools and understood concepts of freedom and civil rights being debated by the white people around them."
Involving Montpelier's descendants
Montpelier has worked closely with the descendant community since the Montpelier Foundation's inception in 2000 to more accurately and holistically represent the experience of enslaved men, women, and children at Montpelier and elsewhere. This exhibition was no different – Montpelier's team of historians, curators and archaeologists partnered with the descendant community to shape the exhibition. The Mere Distinction of Colour features photography and recorded voices of descendants, who trace their roots to Montpelier, or the greater Orange, Virginia area, either by blood or oral history. Their first-hand testimonies illustrate how the legacy of slavery impacts not only today's conversations but the real pursuit and actualization of race and human rights in America.
"This country wouldn't be what it is without the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors," said Margaret Jordan, Montpelier Foundation Board Secretary and descendant of Paul Jennings, Madison's body slave while he lived in the White House and throughout his retirement. "My goal in being a part of the exhibition and shining light on my ancestors' stories is to increase cultural sensitivity about where racial norms and bias come from, and help us confront race relations and difficult conversations about slavery's legacy. I hope this exhibition will help people better understand how slaves were the main force in building America and get a fuller picture of the history of our country – because slavery isn't just African-American history, it's American history."
Funding for the exhibition was made possible through a generous donation by patriotic philanthropist, David M. Rubenstein, to encourage people to learn about our nation's founding era and to tell a more complete American story. The exhibition is open daily from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. and is located off Constitution Highway in Orange, Virginia. For directions and more information, visit www.Montpelier.org.
About James Madison's Montpelier
The lifelong home of James Madison, Father of the Constitution, Architect of the Bill of Rights, and fourth President of the United States, is more than a museum. As a monument to James Madison, a cultural institution for American history, and a center for constitutional education, Montpelier engages the public with the enduring legacy of Madison's most powerful idea: government by the people. The historic home and 2,650-acre grounds are open to visitors and groups throughout the year; and the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at Montpelier offers world-class residential and online educational programs. Montpelier is a National Trust for Historic Preservation site. To learn more, visit www.montpelier.org.
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SOURCE James Madison’s Montpelier