Thomas Jefferson at the National Museum of American History


During a recent visit to the National Museum of American History, the museum was crowded, so I breezed through the old familiar exhibits and spent more time browsing two new ones, both of which relate to Thomas Jefferson. Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox at Liberty examines both the workaday realities of enslaved life at Jefferson’s estate and the contradictions in Jefferson’s ideals of freedom and practice of slave-owning. Jefferson’s Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth displays and interprets the rearrangement of biblical verses (literally, a cut-and-paste effort, in the pre-computer sense) Jefferson undertook in order to develop a version of the Bible by which he could live.

Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello at the National Museum of American History

Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello at the National Museum of American History

Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello juxtaposes two forms of memorial at its entrance: a statue of Jefferson, and a curved wall behind him listing the names of all his slaves. This centerpiece challenges visitors, who are probably familiar with seeing statues of the third president. It raises questions like, who is being memorialized here? Jefferson? The slaves? Both? The wall of names behind the statue was, to me, suggestive of a theme throughout the exhibit – that Jefferson could not have reached his achievements or maintained his lifestyle without the labor of over 100 slaves behind him. Also in the exhibit are family trees for Jefferson’s slaves, and an explanation that a combination of DNA analysis and historical context lead most experts to conclude that Thomas Jefferson fathered children of Sally Hemings. The exhibit is presented by the as-yet-unbuilt National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Jefferson’s Bible is a smaller exhibit around the corner. It displays Jefferson’s Bible itself, but actually delving into its text requires use of the touch screen provided, or viewing it online at home. Text panels on the walls explain Jefferson’s process, and the importance of reason and even doubt in his interpretation of Christianity.

Jefferson's Bible at the National Museum of American History

Jefferson’s Bible at the National Museum of American History

Jefferson's Bible at the National Museum of American History

Jefferson’s Bible at the National Museum of American History

Today, people are accused of cherry-picking from the Bible, and cherry-picking is quite clearly what Jefferson was doing. But he expected no one else to live by his arrangement of verses; it was intended only for his own use. Ironically, this personal-use holy book is now available online, displayed in a museum, and sold in bookstores. Present-day audiences are interested in Jefferson, and so they are interested in his Bible.

The two exhibits together explore Jefferson’s ideology. Crowding in the exhibits on the Sunday I went is a testament to the popularity of the subject. On a slower day, more time could be spent in the exhibits, in reading and thought.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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