Life on Plantations as Lived by the Slaves: Controversy Fades as Exhibit Is Big Hit at MLK Library

Article excerpt

When John Michael Vlach, a George Washington University professor, introduced the exhibit "The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation" at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, one question got a large laugh from the audience.

Had Mr. Vlach, the exhibit's curator, refused to include any images out of fear that they might be "politically charged?"

Mr. Vlach was at the library, speaking to an overflow audience about the exhibit he curated, because it unexpectedly had turned out to be politically charged. After a tour of six university museums and historic homes, the exhibit, which presents plantation life from the slave's point of view, was mounted at the Library of Congress on the sixth floor of the Madison Building.

About 20 black employees and some white employees complained that some images were offensive and the exhibit lacked historical context. It was dismantled, reportedly 2 1/2 hours after the installation was completed. Mr. Vlach learned that the exhibit had been pulled only when he arrived to check on its final installation.

Art librarian George Martin quickly encouraged officials to bring the exhibit to the District's MLK library. As soon as Mr. Vlach selected MLK as the exhibit's new home, Elena Tscherny, the one-person exhibit staff, rallied library volunteers to assemble the placards on the building's second floor.

The staff reproduced the original exhibit catalog on colored paper, stapled the copies, arranged an opening address by Mr. Vlach, issued a press release, developed a display of books about slavery and proudly circulated among the crowds with comment cards.

The exhibit originated at the Library of Congress when Mr. Vlach discovered a "treasure trove" of images of slave dwellings that had been ignored for 60 years. He put those together with oral histories of ex-slaves gathered during the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers Project. The result was a book, "Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery," and an invitation from the library to develop an exhibit from the materials.

Each panel covers a different aspect of everyday plantation life, described in words drawn from the slave narratives and with period pictures. The 21 display modules fit comfortably in a small area outside MLK's second-floor History Division, and the exhibit design is simple. You could walk through in 10 minutes, but it would be a mistake. Take some time and follow the sequence of panels as described in the catalog.

The exhibit begins with a description of the distinctive physical features of plantations as seen from the fields and moves to slave labor, the "onerous, unrelenting taskes" that created the plantation's wealth. Images of slave quarters follow, with text focusing on efforts to transform those living quarters. A section on skills and talents shows how slaves created a buffer from the harsh aspects of their lives by storytelling, music and dance. Slave religion describes the development of an African-American theology, a unique slave creation, and the concluding section contains reactions to emancipation. …