This Place Matters

Joseph McGill, Slave Dwelling Project, Holly Springs, Mississippi, 2012

One of the central goals of APLA is to establish a clear, accessible online multimedia narrative for understanding the history of colonial and antebellum slavery in the Carolina Lowcountry. Geo-located online tours and interactive maps (built through digital tools such as City Slicker and Neatline) will particularly serve to connect specific places in the current Lowcountry landscape to the complex layers of social history that occurred within this region.

But one point that I think is crucial for public history producers to understand about the role of digital history projects in their work is that they are not meant to replace physically encountering a historic place. I doubt many people will look at a map or tour online and decide there is nothing further to gain from actually going there. This is because learning about history is often a sensual experience as a much as it is cognitive. As scholar Alison Landsberg argues in Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture , an effective historic site creates a “prosthetic memory” for visitors, by using landscapes and structures to create a physical connection for visitors that encourages empathy for the historic experiences that occurred in these spaces (Landsberg, 149). In the past, “time travel” interpretation strategies could be problematic on historic sites such as plantations, because guides generally encouraged visitors to connect only to white elite experiences. Guides might tell visitors “this is where you would dine” when touring the dining room, or “this is where you would have tea with your guests”– ultimately obscuring the race and class hierarchies that defined social interactions within these spaces, and strictly limited who exactly this you would be.

But in recent years various plantation sites in the Lowcountry region and beyond have begun to encourage empathetic “time travel” connections to a greater range of historic experiences, particularly by highlighting spaces such as quarters and cabins where enslaved people lived. Local historian activists such as Joseph McGill have particularly worked to make these sites more visible to the public, and to the present day owners of these sites. McGill works for the National Trust and is based in Charleston. The goal of his Slave Dwellings Project is strikingly simple. He spends the night in various slave dwellings (cabins or quarters within homes) as they currently exist throughout the United States to convey a direct message– “This Place Matters.” I have seen McGill give public presentations about his work numerous times and interviewed him for my own research. A major point he emphasizes in these discussions is the physical experience of his stays. He describes in great detail the heat, bugs, and late night sounds as well as his personal feelings about being in these spaces.  This makes the intervention role of his project powerful. As he recently explained to me, once they have someone ask to stay there, historic site producers will often become more aware of how they have neglected and overlooked the historic meaning of cabins and quarters on their plantation sites. McGill’s physical experiences in these spaces forces them to imagine the experiences of the people who lived and struggled in these spaces– which can trigger powerful changes in how they construct their representations for public tours.

Online interpretation cannot replace this connection, and should not seek to.  Instead it serves to increase access to research and and digitally archived materials for critically understanding these historic experiences. Multimedia materials such as images of artifacts, photographs, or artistic depictions of historic experiences can help visitors visualize the race and class histories that public history representations within Lowcountry landscapes and structures traditionally obscured. For this reason, once we begin to promote APLA, we will particularly encourage guides and sites to engage the digital history resources this site will offer as a way to further enhance the experience of their interpretation.

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One comment on “This Place Matters

  1. Vicki McCarrell says:

    Thanks for all that you do to keep the history alive Joe!

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