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Virtual Symposium Explores Race, Place, and Identity through Low Country Collections

Nov 27, 2020

The Decorative Arts Trust and the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust co-hosted the symposium, Exploring Race, Place & Identity through Low Country Collections on Wednesday, November 18, and Thursday, November 19, 2020. 

On the first evening, after a welcome from the Trust’s Executive Director Matthew Thurlow, we heard from Carrie Villar and Elon Cook Lee, both from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation represents 28 sites across the country and serves over 1 million visitors a year. Carrie Villar is the John and Neville Bryan Senior Director of Museum Collections and is responsible for the collection objects throughout the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Carrie spoke about how she uses each site’s collections to tell the full American story. Reflecting specifically on projects conducted at Woodlawn in Alexandria Virginia, Carrie gave insight on how she used traditional decorative arts collections to tell more inclusive stories. Woodlawn was a gift from George Washington to his nephew and step-granddaughter. Designed by the first Architect of the Capitol, William Thornton, the plantation house was completed in 1805. To address the absence of the African American stories in the collection, Woodlawn welcomed contemporary African American artists to mine the collection and incorporate museum objects into their work.

Elon Cook Lee, the Director of Interpretation and Education at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, provided participants with a guide on how to conduct object interviews to think critically about why an object is in a particular collection, what used to be in that space, and if that object truly belongs there. Twelve of the National Trust sites  have histories of slavery. Elon spoke about her work with descendent communities and how she uses the collections to build relationships with descendents and share fuller stories of objects. 

After the presentation from the National Trust, Patricia Lowe Smith and Amber Satterthwaite of the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust delivered a joint lecture, “Peopling Drayton Hall: Life and Labor at a Palladian Villa.” The two shared some of the new research and interpretation that they have developed to create a new tour that highlights the experience of the enslaved population at Drayton Hall. Patricia discussed how Drayton Hall exists as an example of the historic use of Palladian architecture to impose and enforce oppressive social order. By closely studying primary documents, like the personal diaries of Charles Drayton, Amber is uncovering the identities of enslaved individuals that can be shared at Drayton Hall. The two emphasized how their work is expanding the stories shared at Drayton Hall and putting the site on track to become a resource for those studying African American history in the Low Country. 

Find the recording of the lectures from night one of the symposium here: 

 

On night two, November 19, attendees were welcomed by Carter Hudgins, the President and CEO of Drayton Hall, who offered remarks about the late Ed Chappell, a renowned architectural historian who had a tremendous impact on our understanding of historic buildings in the Low Country. Tiffany Momon of the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive gave the first presentation of the evening titled “Fighting for Recognition: Introducing the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive.” Tiffany described the archive that she founded, Blackcraftspeople.org, that records the lives and experiences of 399 Black craftspeople who labored as freed and enslaved artisans in the South Carolina Low Country. Her team has just received their first grant to expand the project into Tennessee. The Black Craftspeople Digital Archive team is motivated to further the fight against the complicit erasure of Black craftspeople at historic sites across the country. 

After Tiffany’s inspiring presentation, participants heard from Lauren Northup of Classical American Homes Preservation Trust for her presentation, “Resistance and Resilience: Rethinking the House Museums of Historic Charleston.” Lauren discussed her journey discovering the original kitchen building at the Nathaniel Russell House, which also would have been the domestic space for the enslaved individuals living at the site. Lauren shared the incredible work she and her team did to unearth the material culture that speaks to the lived experience of the enslaved population. Spoiler alert: rat nests played an important part in this discovery!

The symposium closed with a fantastic presentation from Brenda Tindal titled “African Roots/African Routes: Interpretations of Race, Place, and Identity at the International African American Museum.” Brenda introduced the audience to the soon-to-open International African American Museum in Charleston, SC. The museum’s mission is to honor the untold story of the African American journey on one of the country’s most sacred sites. The museum is located on Gadsden’s Wharf, an important site for the importation of Africans through the transatlantic slave trade. Brenda shared the museum’s Interpretive and Design framework as well as a walkthrough of some of the future exhibitions. 

Hear more about the International African American Museum and enjoy all of the lectures from the second night of the symposium by watching the recording: 

 

The Trust’s calendar of events shows upcoming Trust Talks and other virtual and in-person programs. For updates on registration openings, sign up for our e-newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Instagram. The Trust is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that appreciates the involvement of members and donors who make programming like this possible.

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