For my final project, I set out to design a digital exhibition that features the material culture unearthed and interpreted by the descendants of the enslaved families at James Madison’s Montpelier. The reason that I selected the home of the nation’s fourth president was because I have collaborated with the archaeology and historic preservation departments over the past decade since uncovering my ancestral ties to this historical institution. I embarked on my first archaeological excavation at the presidential estate in Summer 2012 during an excavation expedition led by Dr. Matt Reeves. The experience was inspiring and shifted the trajectory of my academic and professional career. My hopes are that this digital exhibition will inspire the next generation of archaeologists, historians, and museum professionals.
Originally, I published the proposal for this digital project on February 16, 2022. While conducting initial research for this digital project, there was an article published in The Washington Post on March 25, 2022. The article stated that board members of the Montpelier Foundation had blocked structural parity between the board and the Montpelier Descendants Committee. Descendants including myself have played an imperative role in contributing to the archaeological and historical research at James Madison’s Montpelier.
The proposed digital exhibition highlights five artifacts including an iron key, clothing thimble, toy clay marble, wooden pig toy, and a brick with a finger impression. I was able to create a working proof of concept for my digital history project while this struggle for structural parity continues. There are elements discussed in my proposal that could not be achieved due to the current climate at Montpelier and without proper permissions.
When I decided to implement 3D objects into the digital exhibition, it was because of the need to make history education more accessible. However, throughout researching this topic, I learned that other institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution use 3D technology to showcase their immense collections to a global audience. The Smithsonian states on their website that their collection has over 155 million unique artifacts and specimens with only 1% of their collections actively on display.
In comparison, Montpelier has over 1 million artifacts in their archaeological collection with less than 1% of their collection clearly displayed for visitors. The only 3D scanned artifacts that are accessible online are those scanned by the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University. James Madison’s Montpelier collaborated with the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University to 3D scan artifacts from the vast archaeological collection at Montpelier. While some of the artifacts are on display for visitors, a digital exhibition that features the material culture unearthed and interpreted by the descendant community would expand the reach of the archaeological collection to a larger audience while providing a wealth of data for researchers and family historians. These 3D objects that were scanned by the Virtual Curation Laboratory have been uploaded to SketchFab.com for academic outreach with Creative Commons Attributions (CC-BY-NC-ND).
The past 35 days since the board’s decision have been extremely difficult to witness as a descendant of the enslaved community at James Madison’s Montpelier. Especially, once I learned that two staff members who are deeply admired by the descendant community were fired and other respected staff were suspended without cause. Their firing has caused increased concerns from the descendant community and professionals throughout the digital humanities. Also, there are concerns of how the archaeological collection will be maintained in the future when staff with the most familiarity of these collections are faced with employment uncertainty.
My proposed digital project requires the collaboration between staff and descendants. This partnership has been created and maintained for over two decades and these times of uncertainty stress the importance of the digitization of historical objects. The artifacts associated with individuals who have been omitted from written record including the hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children at James Madison’s Montpelier are especially at risk. The time is now to preserve and share the artifacts with a global audience.
My proposed digital project is attached below.