As I mentioned in previous posts, sometimes I use this space to spotlight communications best practices. Often, these examples come from other industries, but have applicability in history communications. Today’s spotlight is especially compelling because it comes from history. Let’s talk about James Madison’s Montpelier and its excellent use of video.
James Madison’s Montpelier and The Mere Distinction of Color
The Mere Distinction of Colour is programming at James Madison’s Montpelier that explores the role of slavery and enslaved people at Montpelier and in the founding of our country. I first learned about it at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), when I attended Public History and Public Memory: Talking About Slavery at Presidential Plantations. Christian Cotz, Director of Education and Visitor Engagement at Montpelier, got my attention as he explained how involved descendants had been in unearthing (literally) and telling the story of slavery at Montpelier.
The Mere Distinction of Colour recently earned the Outstanding Public History Project Award from the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and having experienced the exhibit, I would say it’s a well-deserved award. There are so many aspects of the programming that I could discuss, but for now, I want to focus on the use of video.
Roll the Tape
Video plays an important role in how we communicate about history. It can set the tone for a tour of a history-related venue. It can provide context for a museum exhibit. It can bring past events to life. The Mere Distinction of Colour uses video to remarkable effect.
Fate in the Balance - Ellen Stewart
Using charcoal animation projected on a white wall, Fate in the Balance tells the story of Ellen Stewart, a young slave at Montpelier. The starkness of the video creates a sense of anxiety, no sepia-toned warmth here. This is a difficult story told in all its shades of grey. It likely would have been compelling enough to tell Ellen’s story of fear and heartbreak on its own, but this video also is injected with elements of thought-provocation that stick well after the video ends.
After a tour of the mansion that showcases, in part, Dolley Madison’s skill at being a warm and generous hostess, Ellen’s story shows us a side of Dolley that was much more complex. A side of her that is dark, sneaky, and desperate. Also striking is how the video describes the reaction of Montpelier’s slaves to James Madison’s death. Ellen points out that others mistake their tears for sadness about their master’s death, but really those tears are an expression of fear and uncertainty about what is to come.
As the video credits rolled, I noticed a box of tissues on the bench next to me. I don’t know if that was deliberate.
Because I move around in a world of non-historians quite a bit, I hear plenty of mumbling about how history isn’t relevant to the very real problems we need to solve today. Bridging that gap is no small feat, but it is critically important. I don’t even know that I need to say anything about Legacies of Slavery. This video connects the past with today so clearly and so viscerally. It makes history’s value and contemporary applicability undeniable.
That’s an Uneasy Wrap
There are countless techniques for communicating history, video is just one of them. James Madison’s Montpelier and The Mere Distinction of Colour have provided fine examples of video application. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.