The aesthetics of domination and resistance: historic and contemporary atmospheres at plantation house museums

Authors: Emma Walcott-Wilson*, University of Tennessee, Derek Alderman, University of Tennessee, AAG President
Topics: Cultural Geography, Tourism Geography, Historical Geography
Keywords: plantation museums, museums, atmosphere, aesthetics, qualitative, authenticity, tourism, slavery
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Napoleon D2, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Aesthetic choices at museums are not intrinsic, unproblematic characteristics but something actively produced and consumed as part of the heritage atmosphere. Importantly, the politics of aesthetics recognizes that creating, promoting, and seeking out beauty as an authentic experience can be connected to larger social practices and relations that engender or shut down certain ideologies or ways of thinking about places and people. The politics of aesthetics at plantation sites in the U.S. South have been both emancipatory and repressive when it comes to the history of African enslavement. Using adornments, performance, and design, enslaved laborers made aesthetics an expression of agency by resisting, co-opting, mocking, reinterpreting, and re-imagining the aesthetics of white supremacy. In the contemporary context of a plantation house museum, aesthetics is the consumable result of deliberate planning to re-imagine a place of work as a place of rest. The centrality of “the Big House” and the marginality or invisibility of labor at many plantation house museums reproduce imagined atmospheres of the romantic southern aristocracy. Using data from more than 200 interviews with visitors to plantation house sites in and near Charleston, S.C., we examine how the how the aesthetic experiences of tourists shape their understanding of slavery and how tourists invoke a politics of beauty within their political utterances about the plantation as a place. Central to our analysis is an exploration of authenticity as inexorably linked to aesthetics and how these nebulous and atmospheric contexts elucidate or conceal the brutality of chattel slavery across time.

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