Live Oaks and “living” memory: tour guides and interpreting aesthetics at plantation house museums in Charleston, South Carolina

Authors: Emma Walcott-Wilson*, University of Tennessee
Topics: Cultural Geography, Qualitative Methods, Qualitative Research
Keywords: heritage tourism, plantation museums, slavery, historical interpretation, memory, sensory ethnography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 4:30 PM / 6:10 PM
Room: Ambassador Ballroom, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Aesthetics are more than beauty but an expression of the political, past and present. How historic sites deploy those aesthetics has the power to change or reinforce visitors’ perceptions and develops a sense of atmosphere that mediates their experience when they visit and when they leave. Long avenues of Live Oak trees are central to the material and imagined landscapes of historic plantations in the American South. Certain trees, such as the Witness Tree at McLeod Plantation Historic Site in Charleston, SC, serve as axis points for interpreting the past as well as a sort of aesthetic anchor. The Witness Tree became an important part of the site’s narrative because it is important to the way the guides themselves view and interpret the site. This paper focuses on tour guides and how their experience of place—their physical and emotional labor, development of tours, and engagement with the landscape—contributes to the (re)creation of historical narratives and plantation atmospheres. Drawing from data from extensive participant-observation and in-depth interviews with tour guides in Charleston, I will discuss guides’ aesthetic experience and the production of narrative with a particular focus on the role of trees.

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