Date of Award

2017

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Department

History

Sub-Department

College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Allison Marsh

Abstract

Rebirth of a House Museum traces the transformation of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home (WWFH) in Columbia, South Carolina from an eighty year-old presidential shrine to the nation’s first museum of Reconstruction. A semi-guided house tour with limited objects and grounded in a specific time and place modernized an outdated historic house museum (HHM). The house became the primary artifact, supported by a panel exhibit and five original Wilson family objects. Critical to the exhibit’s success were the docents, who also steer this manuscript via their oral histories and fill a void in public history literature. Like Reconstruction, the reinterpretation was both revolutionary but less radical than its potential. Nonetheless, the project will assist sites seeking guidance in training and inclusivity, tackling difficult or controversial interpretative transitions, and unraveling white supremacy.

The challenges of the WWFH’s interpretation transformed the training process used by Historic Columbia, the organization that administers the home. The docents who excelled were women, those who worked in education, and those holding advanced degrees. Mandatory language and cultural sensitivity training was the first exposure for many white volunteer docents to concepts such as “white privilege” and coded language. Some docents ultimately used their tours to combat their own biases and Lost Cause indoctrination. Visitor evaluations reveal that the majority of guests also were eager to learn about Reconstruction.

HHMs limit or exclude narratives pertaining to non-elite whites and have great difficulty discussing white supremacy. The WWFH demonstrates how historiography, census records, architecture, image analysis, and docent training can illuminate the lives of unknown domestic workers. Docents were also successful in interpreting racialized and political terrorism and, for some, questioning their own privilege as white docents discussing violence. However, the museum did not prepare docents or use the exhibit to address the sexual terror and exploitation of women during Reconstruction. The site also struggled to deal with Wilson’s white supremacy. The WWFH confronted Wilson’s stance on segregation and his screening of The Birth of a Nation in the White House, which other Wilson homes rarely addressed. However, docents were reluctant to frame Wilson as a racist. Yet in the wake of student protests at Princeton challenging his memory, Historic Columbia generated new conversations with docents about his white supremacy.

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