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Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty explores the complex relationships among Thomas Jefferson, one of our Founding Fathers, and six enslaved African American families who lived and labored at Monticello for almost four generations. Although Jefferson believed in liberty and justice and actively expressed his contempt for the institution of slavery, he owned African Americans until his death in 1826. The families who were still living at Monticello at that time were placed on auction in January, 1827 and forcibly separated from one another. Although many of the families remained in Virginia after the Emancipation, several members journeyed throughout the United States to begin new lives in places such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and California.
I sat down with Gina W. to discuss her role in the development of this exhibition. She is the collections manager responsible for installing the historical artifacts and ensuring that they are protected at all times. Prior to installation, Gina was also instrumental in making certain that curators, designers and fabricators worked cohesively to create a memorable presentation. Once the show closes this October, she will see to it that the objects are returned to collections storage and closely monitored in preparation for our inaugural exhibitions in 2015.
Kareen (KM): In your opinion, who are the major players in the exhibit installation process?
Gina (GW): Definitely collections managers who work with other collections staff, especially the project manager. In addition, we work with mount makers to safely install the objects and to make sure the content is reflecting what is on the labels. We also collaborated with Monticello’s staff on content development. Fabricators guaranteed that cases and the exhibit space were prepped and ready for display as well. It’s like a domino effect. Fabricators have to finish their work on cases for the mount makers to complete their tasks, and then for the collections managers to install the objects. We all have to work together. As a collections manager, you see the whole picture to keep everyone moving forward.
KM: How would you describe your role as a collections manager?
GW: Being a manager of a specific collection is different than being one for an exhibition, especially because most of these items were borrowed from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF). It involved a lot of coordination and cooperation. It was about working closely with TJF collections managers. It’s not only managing the details of the objects, but also working with designers to ensure that the placement of objects went along with the story we were trying to tell.
KM: Would you then describe yourself as a steward of these objects?
GW: Yes, because it’s our job to make sure these objects are protected and taken care of for generations to come. It’s important to work with conservators and mount makers, while also trying to tell the story so people will understand the relevance of what is being displayed. Balancing the inherent needs of the objects and being aware of our audience’s desire to be close to the objects are things we have to keep in mind. An example of this is the Priscilla Hemmings headstone--we had to put this toward the back of the case so that there was more support for it on the mount, as opposed to placing it directly at the front of the case so visitors could read the etching more clearly.
KM: What is the most challenging part of exhibit installation and why?
GW: Timing. There are so many moving pieces. There are so many different people—fabricators and mount makers, collections staff. You have to work with what is there and available due to the set schedule. You have to be flexible and ready to make changes; coming up with the plan of how things are to be installed, but also understanding that not everything will go as expected.
KM: How has this exhibit helped to shape your perception of Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved population of Monticello?
GW: Thomas Jefferson was a very interesting and complex man. He had his public life and he talked about how he wanted to abolish slavery, despite the fact that he owned 607 slaves at his home over the course of his lifetime. In his public life, he talked about taking action against slavery…but in his private life, he rarely did.
KM: How was opening night for you? What were your thoughts and feelings?
GW: It was a relief that it all came together. It was also exciting because so many people had worked on this exhibition. From looking through storage cabinets in the archaeology department at TJF to putting the objects in cases, there were so many people involved and working to share the story of Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved population at Monticello. The most touching part was seeing the reaction of the descendants as they walked through the exhibit and seeing the emotion on their faces…and pride.
KM: Thanks so much for chatting with me today, Gina. We truly appreciate what you do.
GW: I’m happy to share the experience, because it’s a unique glimpse into the museum world.