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As tourist attractions, plantations in the South that use to run on slave labor are very strange places to explore (take it from someone who took field trips to a few of them during grade school). Despite good intentions by those who offer educational tours and programming at the historic sites, it's hard to admire gardens, pet animals, and learn about slavery in a place where people were kept and forced to work. There is one plantation in Louisiana that has a different approach to teaching about the past because, besides the fact that it still has the word "plantation" in the name, it is has been converted into the first plantation museum in America to focus on slavery.
According to the New York Times, the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana (which was used as a backdrop for scenes in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained) reopened back in December after undergoing secret restorations. The owner is a lawyer named John Cummings, and the museum's Director of Research is a Senegalese scholar named Ibrahima Seck, who visited the property during the summer for 10 years to help Cummings develop a plan for the plantation. Cummings revealed that so far he has spent millions, money that he has "no interest in getting back."
"As historians, we do the research and we write dissertations and we go to conferences, but very little of the knowledge gets out," Seck told The Times. "That’s why a place like this is so important. Not everyone is willing to read nowadays, but this is an open book."
The Whitney Plantation includes a "Wall of Honor" with names engraved into granite of the 107,000 slaves from the plantation and others like it in Louisiana before Emancipation, seven slave cabins, a visitor's center with an exhibition on North American slave trade, and various other elements meant to teach those who stop by about what life was like for the people who built the region.
"If ‘guilt’ is the best word to use, then yes, I feel guilt," said Cummings, whose Irish heritage does not intersect with American slave history. "I mean, you start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world — wealth that has benefited me — was created by some half a million black people who just passed us by. How is it that we don’t acknowledge this?"
The most powerful and potentially shocking part of the museum will be an installation that Cummings has planned for a small island on the property's lagoon. Sculptor Woodrow Nash was commissioned to create 60 ceramic heads that will be place atop steal rods, an installation that Cummings says will be optional and not for young visitors. "Just in case you’re worried about people getting distracted by the pretty house over there, the last thing you’ll see before leaving here will be 60 beheaded slaves."
[via New York Times]