When visitors approach the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana after its opening on Dec. 7, they won't be greeted by an actress in period dress ready to explain the origins of an antique tablecloth.
Instead they'll see an enormous, rusted anchor and chain, a sculpture that's the vision of local artist Beth Lambert.
No one at the Whitney is going to be encouraging to drink a mint julep and wander underneath moss-ridden trees. The New Orleans attorney John Cummings has spent the last 14 years researching and curating a museum that aims to tell the story of slavery in the American South, as viscerally as possible, drawing on visual art, sounds and storytelling. He hired the Senagalese scholar Dr. Ibrahima Seck to trace the lives of slaves at the plantation, and he's commissioned statues and artifacts to make visitors feel the presence of those ghosts, especially the ghosts of the children held captive there. " I want to tell visitors, 'Make sure that your mind is open and your heart is open,'" Cummings told Gambit. "We are teaching history through the individual lives of children."
Children will be on the other side of that message, too. The Whitney Institute, the museum’s academic arm, will develop a special curriculum for school groups and will serve as a resource center available to people young and old in addition to hosting an intern program for students of history all over the world. The plantation’s library boasts 2,700 oral histories from slaves across the south, courtesy of the WPA, and Cummings is encouraging people who can’t visit the plantation to get involved online.
“You can ask Dr. Seck questions and within 48 hours he'll get back to you,” Cummings says. “Maybe you can't find your ancestors, or you want to know the involvement of the African chieftain in the slave trade, any question like that.”
The institute will also be available to receive information from descendents of slaves or anyone else who has something to offer. “We are inviting everyone to join in who hears about this effort,” Cummings says. “You won't be asked to contribute, just your thoughts. We would like very much for you to get in touch.”
Visitors can reserve spots to tour the plantation at www.whitneyplantation.com.