David L. Butler, PhD - RESET Research Fellow
When I visit a historic site, I am amazed as much for the information that is shared than I am for the information that is not shared. At any given tourism site, the full spectrum of all that happened at that site, by the many people involved, over numerous years, cannot all be represented. Thus, a culling of information to share is necessary and this removing happens by people, making value judgements, for the visitors who will show up at these sites to learn of the history. What is shared, and what is not, and how, is a subjective experience that is embedded not in the past, when the history took place, but by people living today, experiencing today, reflecting on the past, from today. What I am trying to say is that history at historical sites is not the history of the past, it is the history of the past from the lens of the present. It is the values, politics, culture, economics of today that influence what of the past, and how, it is shared, and not the values, politics, culture and economics of that time.
Imagine that the history of a tourism site is a buffet line that goes on, and on, and on. This buffet line represents a year of that site, by time. The first month of that year, January, here are all of the items that happened, each served up as a possible dishes to consume. Births, deaths, weddings, divorces, fights, loves, financial windfall, financial ruin, success, failures, great art events, less-than-great art events, schooling, illnesses, a new car, wagon or horse, less expensive oil or lighting, a road fixed, a tornado knocking down a tree, and that was just the first month of the first year. The next few steps in the buffet show month two, February, in this first year, replete with similar items from January, but with additional edibles as well, including scandals. And as you walk the buffet line to the end of that first year, nearing the December food, you have plates and plates full of food on your tray. And that is just year one of the tourism site. You pause, with a very heavy tray filled with relevant historical items, and walk to the elevator, to go to floor two, the next year, and start all over again with January. Depending upon the age of the tourism site, you may visit fifty to two-hundred floors, each with a January-December buffet, some items showing up with regularity, and sometimes a special unique treat unseen to date. This is the dilemma of a tourism site. So much to show, so little time and space from which to show it. Thus, how do you select from many years of buffets, the ten items you have time to show the visitors, to keep them interested, engaged, and hopefully giving you a good review on social media and purchasing trinkets of their visit at the gift shop?
If the goal is increase the number of visitors to a tourism site each year, then offering up the ten items from the buffets is tricky. You must ask, what 10 things would a tourist, in 2019, 2020, or 2021, want to hear about from the past 50-200 years at this historic site? The answer is commonly something that they can relate to, something that they will remember, something that will make them smile, laugh and have a good time. Something worthy of a post on social media so others can experience this distantly through them. The answer is seldom the most common thing that happened on this site each day, which can seem boring, mundane and not unlike their own life at present, which they are escaping at present while at a tourism site.
Now we come to the meat (pun intended) of this blog. What if the tourism site has a history that is less than happy from the point-of-view of 2019, 2020, or 2021? Does one ignore, erase, sanitize or whitewash this history to make it more happy, gleeful and palatable (pun, again) for the current tourist or visitor? Or is there a social, moral or ethical obligation to show the happy with the sad, the good with the evil, the free with the enslaved, even if it does not produce a level of lightness that some people seek while at tourism sites? These questions are what have been discussed, and continue to be debated, within the tourism plantation owner and operator community for decades. How and/or should, a tourism plantation, represent the enslaved and slavery, if at all, at this site? After all, the buffet of choices from these sites are many, why choose such a sad and often depressing subject as enslavement to share with visitors on vacation?
Niche foods and changes in taste
Up until the mid-1990s, plantation tourism chose the pragmatic path of showing the ten buffet items which people stated they wanted, directly by showing up and digesting what was given, or indirectly, through popular culture films such as “Gone with the Wind” where a romanticized view of the period with wealth, opulence and love conquered the box office. There were no enslaved people at a plantation, only “servants” and other trappings one would expect to find at a large, ornate home, of a politically and economically powerful family. To the majority of the visitors and their demographics at that time, affluent, white and baby boomers, this tourism trope worked well and successfully. As the baby boomers started to decline from the majority of the visitors and new Gen X and those alphabet groups afterwards started to appear as tourists, the old tropes did not settle in the stomach as well, and at times were nearly indigestible. The idea that you can have the word “plantation” and no slavery was illogical and oxymoronic. Why did they not share and show enslavement? What were they trying to hide? And why? Year-by-year the demographics would change and any forward looking business person could see that soon the baby boomers would exit the market and the Gen X and after them, the millennials, would be the dominate group touring, and their taste buds were different than what was being served. Should the ten items be exchanged for ten other items? Maybe only one item changed and keep the nine? Or what is the proper mix? Then along comes Django Unchained (2012), 7 Years a Slave (2013) and other such movies which supplant Gone With the Wind in the new visitors as a part of their pop culture. “If you show slavery, will they still come?” was an underlying question that vexed many plantation owners and operators, and some to this day.
What has emerged, in an erratic and differential landscape, is change. Some tourism plantation sites still sell Gone With the Wind to the baby boomers and hope they keep turning out and will bring others with them to adopt their palate. Other sites have adopted the transition trope where they are taking away some of the old favorites and replacing them with new menu items. If they work, they make them part of the permanent offerings, if they do not, they try something else. It is a trial and error mode as the demographics are no longer monolithic and the tastes are eclectic as each person who visits. And the final offering is the niche locations. Some proudly state that slavery is not on their menu and if you want that to digest, there are other places that offer such options for them, down the road and down the river. While other sides have added slavery only to their menu, all slavery, all day, each day, and this is what they offer and sell, but this too has a specific, niche audience, as it excludes other opportunities. From a normative point of view, none of these sights are wrong and none are right. They all reflect today, 2019, and tomorrow, 2020, and tomorrow’s tomorrow, in 2021, the milieu that is American culture. The plantation tourism sites that will survive, and thrive, in this new marketplace will be those that figure out how to deliver just the right menu, and the correct portion of enslavement, too the diverse tastes that now travel.