The problem with house museums
Montpelier blew it. In a discussion with my museum colleagues the other day, we explored the recent unfortunate events at the historic home of James Madison in Orange, Virginia. A colleague from my days at Monticello was fired, along with other staff, after the board refused to honor their commitment to implement board parity with descendants of Madison’s slaves. Although they received praise and a lot of positive press when the move to include slave descendants on the board was announced last year, and despite the pleas of staff and a petition signed by 11,000 people, the board reneged. In a rare move, the National Trust, which owns the property, stepped in to insist that the members nominated by the descendants committee be seated immediately.
One of my colleagues noted that historic homes by their very nature are problematic. A building is used to enshrine the legacy of one person. Yet a home always has more than one person deeply involved in its history. There are all the owners of the land it sits on. There are the designers and builders of the house and furnishings. There’s the rest of the family, and perhaps servants or enslaved people, who ensure the house and its inhabitants are cared for. There’s also an entire community surrounding it.
Ignoring the contributions of so many others, usually women and other lesser-status individuals, distorts history and risks suggesting that the honored individual—like James Madison—existed in some sort of vacuum where his genius flowered. Certainly, had he been responsible for growing, harvesting, and preparing his own meals; making, mending, and washing his own clothes; caring for livestock and undertaking building maintenance Madison would have had little time to study history and law and pen the Constitution.
The power inequities of the home were, of course, also evident in the larger society. Before the 1600s, dining tables were merely boards laid across trestles or diners’ knees. Over time, the word “board” came to also mean the meal itself (thus the terms “boardinghouse,” “boarders,” and “room and board”). People sat on plain benches and when chairs came into more general use in the seventeenth century they were designed to convey authority, with the man of the house seated in one while the rest of the household sat on benches. That’s why today the person in charge of a company is the chair(man) of the board.
Women and lesser-status people have been serving people at the board, cleaning up the board, not allowed to sit at the board, sitting below the board, for a very long time. Symbols and words matter, and as Bill Bryson points out in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, it’s a little odd that our governance structures recall the dining arrangements of medieval peasants.
It’s also odd that we’ve retained the authority structures of boards as well. While diversity of employees and boards is finally being recognized as a positive in the corporate world, including for the bottom line, women and minorities remain woefully underrepresented. (Dig into the numbers here.)
Boards are about power, and power is often about money. Did the Montpelier board get cold feet at the idea of sharing power? Did a wealthy donor threaten not to contribute? To people who are afraid of losing power, change comes particularly hard.
We won’t get into the Supreme Court “bench.”
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.