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Clayton State University English professor finds “good owners” narrative in museum interpretation of slave history

Clayton State NewsMarch 22, 2021

Museum

Plantation museums can provide a misleading understanding of the stories of enslaved individuals based on the perspective of the docent, according to Clayton State University English professor Dr. Sara Harwood.

In her essay entitled, “Bulloch Hall and the Movement Toward a Well-Rounder Interpretation of Antebellum Life in Roswell, Georgia,” Harwood’s research focuses on Bulloch Hall, an antebellum house museum and childhood home of Mittie Bulloch, the mother of President Theodore Roosevelt, located in Roswell, Georgia.

As a volunteer docent at Bulloch Hall, Harwood discovered that the view of slave life presented to tourists centered on the slave master’s perspective at the exclusion of other voices.

Harwood bases her research on a 2002 study of plantation museums and how they present the realities of slavery, as well as the MacCannell theory of staged authenticity, where tourist sites offer “behind the scenes” tours to appear transparent to tourists and make them believe the experience is authentic.

This skewed interpretation creates a “good owners” narrative.

“Bulloch Hall is blunt about discussing slavery…[but] it’s really biased interpretation,” she says. So, I’m comparing what the archive says to how Bulloch Hall presents the archival record.”

Misinterpretation of the stories of enslaved individuals who lived at Bulloch Hall, Harwood notes, partly stems from the home’s place in “Gone with the Wind” folklore, in addition to the biases of the docents handling tours, who often are older, white and female.

“Mittie Bulloch is seen as Scarlett O’ Hara by visitors, and some people think that the character is based on Mittie,” Harwood says.

She adds, “[The docents] bring in their own identities; they identify with the master family, the Bulloch family and have this enslaver perspective that they impose on the archival record.

Harwood argues that antebellum museums like Bulloch Hall must be proactive in bringing awareness to the perspectives of enslaved individuals by utilizing available archives that speak to their daily lives and work. Acknowledging the horror of slavery while telling their stories can provide a historically complete and accurate image of the museum.

Harwood says the city of Roswell, which operates the home, has already begun taking steps toward making the museum tour more inclusive through new docent training.

Harwood’s research will be published this fall.