I recently read Ryan Reynolds’s statement about his deep remorse for holding his wedding at Boone Hall Plantation in South Carolina. The actor related that he saw a pretty venue on Pinterest but that, in reality, it was a place with a tragic past. He felt that he had really made a huge misstep that perpetuated division. I’ve read a few articles on the subject that seem to agree with him: that getting married on a plantation is a horrible thing to do. One author called it “promot[ing] a whitewashing of history atop crimes against humanity.” The commentary on the subject shows that this is a really hot-button issue.
As always, I do not wish to delve into political topics, and my desire is for this to be a respectful forum for all. I can definitely see Reynold’s point: that having a happy-go-lucky wedding on top of soil that was once the sight of enslavement feels incongruous. In addition, I have this weird (frustrating, to those around me!) ability to see both sides to almost every issue which arises. So I’m not writing this article from any desire to join this argument—just from a desire to be useful on a topic about which I can see that there is some confusion.
I have visited countless historic homes, in the North and South. Like my modern heroine, Adeline, my real love is for old things and for architectural history. Therefore, I’m looking mostly at weird antiques and interesting windows or cupolas while I’m touring (nerd alert!). But I do think that I have learned a few things from these many tours that might be helpful to people who haven’t been on them, so I thought I would share.
First of all, I will kind of explain the field that house museums fall into: Public History. It’s an old field that relatively recently has begun to be treated as a discipline or wing of academic history. Public History encompasses archival documentation, museums, historic preservation, curatorial work, educational tours, and a few other fields. It’s a really important field for all of us. If these people didn’t exist, we would literally only know oral and archeological history. Historians would have no documents to research, no buildings to visit, and no antiques to examine.
In addition, Public Historians are the people with boots on the ground, so to speak, who make it their business to educate the public. They give cemetery tours at Halloween. They are the docents when we see the dinosaurs in the museums. They are the ladies dressed up in Victorian garb who help schoolchildren learn to make candles. They translate handwritten recipes for us to buy in cookbook format. They are the men who sit in tights literally all day long in Williamsburg to show us how an eighteenth-century blacksmith wielded his hammer. Academic Historians do their work for other historians and for the field. Public Historians work so that all people will know the importance of history. (Shout out to my sister!)
So what does that have to do with this controversy? A lot. You see, unless a museum, house museum, or plantation is very underfunded, it is generally run by Public Historians. One person, when speaking about the Reynolds wedding, commented on an article with a view that plantation house museums are built around a business model that perpetuates a rosy view of the past. This may have been that person’s experience, and I’m sure that at one time in history, that was true. However, that has not been my experience.
The people who work at these historic sites, generally speaking, are not the fan club of or apologists for the families who owned them or for horrific things that may have happened there. They are highly-trained academics who know that the history they are interpreting is problematic, and they are trained to address those topics.
So far from brushing things under the rug, I have known docents to take a sort of macabre pride in laying out the nitty gritty details of the past for visitors. I remember one instance in Savannah, Georgia, where the docent got so frank about the violence of slavery that I was glancing nervously at the children in our group, afraid they would have nightmares (luckily, the kids spoke only French!). At Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, they shove back the furniture to show you huge blood spots on the wooden floors where men died during the Civil War (so much for romanticizing battles!). At most plantations, you are shown just how small slave cabins were and how many families were forced to live in them. There’s nothing like stepping into one of them for yourself to evoke poignant and painful knowledge of just how things really were for those who lived there.
I have learned a lot about slavery by touring Southern plantations and house museums—more, I think than I have learned in all of my academic studies. It was at McLeod Plantation in South Carolina that I learned from the docent that saying “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” was an effort on the part of Public History to remind us that the people who were held in bondage were just that: people. They had lives and stories, and not all of them are lost to history if we look for them in the right places. Almost all of the tour at McLeod is devoted to individual enslaved people whose lives the historians there have meticulously researched. We learned who they were and what a typical day would look like for them. I had always thought that enslaved people’s individual stories had been tragically lost. For me, this excellent piece of Public History showed me that this was not true.
Again, if those I saw responding to the articles about the Reynolds wedding have had a bad experience at a house museum, that is truly a shame. My guess is that, when it does happen that history is whitewashed in museums, it would likely be from a lack of training and funding, although, of course, there may be certain people who have, or had in the past, specific goals in mind when doing so.
You may be wondering what touring a house museum has to do with hosting a wedding there. The argument could be made that the first is merely history, which is good for people to learn, and the second is a celebration of a personal event at a place of troubled history. Some may feel they chose a plantation venue for the wrong reasons.
But I have known of people to get married at plantations for a variety of reasons which include no cause for judgment or blame. One was a girl who couldn’t find another venue in a rural area to take the burden of hosting off her family. One was an African American woman whose decision to marry at a plantation could only have held profound meaning for her family that I can’t even begin to understand.
And I could have taken this wrong, but I think Reynolds and the commentators weren’t just talking about the wedding: they were implicitly extending their feelings to house museums and plantations operating for business in any capacity. That is to say, I think they felt they should all be closed for business.
And I think that belief misunderstands the nature and purpose of house museums as they operate today. Yes, we are dealing with humans who sometimes tell the wrong story or have the wrong beliefs, just like in any aspect of life. But we are also dealing with a field that provides one of the few forums communicating directly to the public about the lives of people who were enslaved.
And to lose this forum would be a loss to all of us.