A Late Presidents Day Recap

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Anyone who knows me is aware of my ridiculous obsession with presidential history. It started at a young age and has only grown more and more out of control. Last year I spent Presidents’ Day at Jefferson’s Monticello, touring the house and grounds with friends and sampling the new Monticello Reserve Ale from Starr Hill (if you haven’t tried it, you should). I wasn’t sure I’d be able to top last year, but I was wrong. Brad and I started the day at the National Museum of American History to visit a new exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” The exhibition is actually created by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (currently under construction next door to NMAH). The exhibition attempts to answer a few major questions. How could the author of the Declaration of Independence own slaves? How could a country founded for liberty and freedom have so many enslaved people? What was life like for these people?

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I thought the exhibition did a good job of explaining how dependent the colonies were on slavery, including Jefferson. At the same time, he was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and the ideas of liberty and equality. Unfortunately, these ideas didn’t quite transfer over to the Declaration of Independence or Jefferson’s Monticello. While Jefferson thought slavery was wrong, he still owned slaves his whole life and only freed a few when he died. While we’ll never really know what was going on in Jefferson’s head, the exhibition does explain ways Jefferson attempted to improve things. He had several suggestions such as gradual emancipation, abolition of the slave trade, and diffusion of slavery. He thought that if slavery expanded to the west, it would somehow improve the slaves’ situation and slavery would end sooner.

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The rest of the exhibition focused on the slaves at Monticello. They talked about different jobs the slaves would be doing on the property and focused on several big families that lived at Monticello, including family trees and background on each family. It was a lot more information about slaves than I’m used to seeing in a public setting. I appreciated how much emphasis was put on the slaves as people instead of just the issue of slavery. Even more surprising was the last section of the exhibition. It focused on where slaves went after they left Monticello, whether they were freed or sold (as many were because of Jefferson’s debt). It was really interesting to see where so many of them ended up. In 1993, Monticello started “Getting Word,” an oral history project about descendants of Monticello slaves. Reading and hearing stories from these families was the most rewarding part of the exhibition. Go here and explore their project online!

Overall, I really enjoyed the exhibition. While I didn’t leave with any real answer of why Jefferson owned slaves if he was so against it, I was glad to see that the museum didn’t shy away from his contradiction and tried to make the visitors understand what it was like to live at that time as a slave and as a slave-owner. There are many historic houses in the country where slaves lived and worked, but often there are few records kept of these people and what their life was like. Because of Jefferson’s meticulous record keeping, we are able to get a better understanding of these individuals. If you see anything in the exhibition though, see the oral history project information. It was fascinating to hear where the different families ended up and what they ended up doing with their lives out of the bonds of slavery. If this is the level of exhibition that NMAAHC is going to have, then they need to hurry up and build that museum!

I’ll stop there and save the rest of my Presidents Day for another post!

Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb

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As mentioned in my previous post, the boyfriend, B, and I headed into Richmond last weekend to check out the new special exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb is on loan from the British Museum and it is absolutely worth the $15 admission. After five years of going to mostly Washington, DC museums and dealing with the crowds at the Smithsonian, so far I had found my Richmond museum experiences to be much more relaxing…no lines to wait in, no crowds to push through. Then I stepped foot into VMFA. There was a line winding through the lobby to get tickets for the exhibition. Considering the crowds, I thought the staff handled everything well. I would like to go on a random weekday and see what the crowds are like.

We bought our tickets, but we had close to two hours until we could go into the exhibition, so we decided to check out some of the permanent collections (free!) Full disclosure: I am not an art museum person. When I go to a museum, it’s almost always a history museum. The mummy exhibition was recommended to me by a friend and to be fair, that exhibition is more history than art. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed some of the other exhibitions we explored. B was excited for a small exhibition of Jacob Lawrence paintings about John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. I was not familiar with his work, but I really enjoyed his style of capturing the story.

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We checked out some cool Byzantine statues and stained glass, but I was most excited about the American Art exhibition. I think I don’t like art museums as much because I love artifacts. I can only look at so many drawings and paintings, sue me. The section of American art at VMFA was a wonderful mix of paintings and decorative arts that told a chronological history of America. Seriously, I could look at beautiful, hand-crafted, 18th century dressers and tables all day. Before we could finish exploring the collection, it was time to head downstairs to see the mummies!

The exhibition started with a 20 minute, 3-D movie (narrated by Patrick Stewart!) explaining how archaeologists decipher clues to discover a mummy’s identity. For most of the film, the 3-D effect was pretty unnecessary, but I though the use of highlighting certain images and symbols on the mummy was actually pretty fun. When the film ended, we were led into the exhibition where they had several mummies on display as well as a wealth of objects relating to Egyptian burial. The room was a bit crowded, especially since the stars of the show were right at the entrance and everyone was crowding around trying to get a look. I took a quick peek and then began to work my way around the room. It wasn’t an exhibition that necessitated a certain path, so I found myself darting around to different text panels and display cases depending on where the crowds were located. It’s been so long since I studied Ancient Egypt in school, but I found certain pieces coming back to me as I went along.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. The text panels in particular were well thought out and gave just the right amount of information. My big complaint in art museums is a lack of informative labeling, so this was a nice change (although I still consider this more of a history exhibition). From what I can remember, the only other time I’ve been to a museum that contained mummies was the Field Museum in Chicago and I don’t recall seeing the different layers required in the burial practice. That was one thing I really appreciated about this exhibition. You could clearly see the different layers and understand what each one meant. This is definitely a family-friendly exhibition given the 3-D film as well as the fun topic (kids love mummies, right?). Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb is only at VMFA until March 11th, so if you’re in the Richmond area, I strongly suggest checking it out.

Check in next week when I’ll have plenty to gush about after spending Presidents’ Day in our nation’s capital!

The Maiden Voyage

 

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It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me; I love museums. I decided to create this blog to share my love of museums with others, to show that they aren’t just buildings filled with boring objects and pictures. They are places to learn about different cultures as well as our own, experience the work of some of the best artists, and discover secrets from the past. Check out my About page for more info on my background. For the past five years, I lived in Washington, DC, surrounded by the best of the best. I recently moved closer to Richmond, Virginia and am finding that there are quite a few treasures there as well.

Luckily, I have a great boyfriend who is just as obsessed with history and lately we have been visiting different museums almost every weekend. I thought a neat way to keep track of where  we’ve been and think about what we’ve seen was to write about it. Look out this week for my review of my first trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where I met a mummy or two!