Engaging the Past: Curating “A Monumental Weight” at the Fredericksburg Area Museum

Emily Joan Elliott's picture

Guest post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

Public historians specialize in translating academic research for nonspecialists, providing models and inspiration for other scholars looking to convey the value of their work in understanding contemporary social issues. In this post, curator Gaila Sims describes creating an exhibit about slavery at a museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

On August 1, 2022, I started full-time as the Curator of African American History and Special Projects at the Fredericksburg Area Museum (FAM). Luckily, I’d been preparing for this moment. As a graduate student in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, I spent six years studying museum interpretation of African American history, reading through the historiography of slavery, texts on public history, museum studies, and memorialization, and scholarship on plantation museums, national museums, and living history museums. In my current position, I use those skills to contextualize and interpret this history for the local community.

Housed in a historic building that was constructed in 1816, FAM is a regional museum located in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia, dedicated to collecting, interpreting, and preserving the history and culture of its surrounding community. I was hired as part of an ongoing initiative, Voices Strong, Voices True, that gives voice to the diverse people and communities in this area whose stories have been underappreciated and underrepresented in the local public history landscape.While in graduate school, I honed the skills that I use now by writing papers about Lonnie Bunch and the development of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Colonial Williamsburg and living history interpretation of slavery, and museums in former “slave castles” on the coast of Ghana and their role as tourist destinations. My Master’s Report concentrated on the Whitney Plantation Museum in Wallace, Louisiana, as a plantation museum focusing mainly on experiences of enslaved people, while my dissertation examined interpretation of slavery at state history museums in Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, and Misssissippi. I was able to apply all of the knowledge accumulated in researching and writing these projects to the Auction Block exhibit at the Fredericksburg Area Museum.

While my current position is responsible for interpretation related to African American history at the museum and across the city of Fredericksburg, I was hired with one particularly important object in mind: Fredericksburg’s (in)famous Auction Block, which, between 1847 and 1862, had at least twenty documented sales of enslaved people took place on the corner where it originally stood, involving more than three hundred enslaved individuals overall. The Auction Block, also referred to throughout its existence as the “Slave Block,” the “Slave Auction Block,” and “the Block,” was installed at the corner of WIlliam and Charles Streets in downtown Fredericksburg around 1843. In local public memory, the Auction Block became a symbol not only of the horror and violence of enslavement, but also of ongoing racism and inequity in the city of Fredericksburg and across the United States. 

Long an object of contention, community members debated whether to leave it on the street in its original location at various times throughout the twentieth century. Questions about its continued placement retained public focus into the twenty-first century. In 2005, an African American community leader, Reverend Hashmel Turner, advocated for its removal and then in 2017, after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Black City Councilor and Vice-Mayor Charlie L. Frye, Jr. moved for a vote to relocate the Block from its original location. The Council voted 6-1 to keep the Block where it was, but convened a citywide conversation about the Block and African American representation throughout the area. They hired the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (ICSC) to convene focus groups and collect feedback from community members on the Block’s significance and continued placement on the street corner. While opinions varied widely across the city, differing by race, gender, age, and place of origin (Fredericksburg natives and newcomers to the area), ICSC found that, for many people, the Auction Block served as a symbol of a history of racial injustice and pain. On June 11, 2019, the City Council voted 6-1 for its relocation to the Fredericksburg Area Museum.

While this short summary implies methodical information gathering and a tidy resolution, the reality was difficult, contentious, and incredibly public. The object holds enormous historical and emotional weight for this community, not to mention its immense physical weight (1,200 pounds). And, following its removal from its original corner in June 2020 and its placement at the FAM in the fall of that year, it became the responsibility of the museum (and the museum staff) to share the significance of its story to its visitors. 

The museum opened a temporary exhibit surrounding the Auction Block following its installation at the museum in fall 2020, but waited until the Curator of African American History and Special Projects position was filled for a larger, expanded exhibition. That’s where I come in.

When I interviewed for the job in April 2022, I read through all of the extensive media coverage about the Fredericksburg City Council and the citywide conversations surrounding the Auction Block from 2017-2020. It wasn’t until I got to Fredericksburg in the summer of 2022, however, and started meeting local residents and immersing myself in the region’s history that I began to truly understand the Block’s importance in this community. As I continued reading, conversing with community members, and talking with city employees and museum staff, I spent hours in the gallery near the Auction Block, studying the indentations on its sandstone surface, imagining the men, women, and children sold from its corner, thinking about how to honor them and how to capture the immensity of this object through museum interpretation.

The exhibit, divided into four zones, combines historical documentation, slavery scholarship, and individual stories of enslaved people, incorporating extensive images and a reflection space. Utilizing my scholarly training, I contextualized the local history of the Auction Block itself alongside information about Virginia’s larger financial investment in the slave trade and slave market. This section, surrounding the Auction Block itself, also includes a discussion about the community conversations surrounding the Block’s removal between 2017-2020, and the Block’s role as a focal point during protests for racial justice in the summer of 2020. The section concludes with a “Frequently Asked Questions” panel, incorporating answers to the queries I’d repeatedly received since starting at the museum.

The exhibit introduction features a carefully worded caution about the Auction Block’s ability to provoke intense emotional reactions, while the accompanying Reflective Space offers visitors an area for rest and contemplation on the deeply difficult object and the enslaved men, women, and children who experienced its violence firsthand. Finally, the “Community Wall” features an assemblage of quotations, oral histories, remembrances, written references, comments, and social media posts from community members and the wider public, where museum visitors are provided cards and invited to share their own reflections on the Block itself, its history, and their experience in the exhibition.

“A Monumental Weight: The Auction Block in Fredericksburg, Virginia” opened to the public on Saturday, November 5th with a well-attended public gathering, where local Black community members spoke and shared their experiences with the Block and related their hopes for continued work toward racial healing across the city of Fredericksburg. Local newspapers covered the exhibition and event, and the museum has received an overwhelmingly positive response, with diverse community members sharing their appreciation for the exhibition’s sensitivity, thoroughness, and care. While this small exhibition by no means concludes ongoing conversations about race and history in this area, it demonstrates the importance of museums, scholarship, and public engagement in grappling with the past, hopefully in service of a more equitable future.

Gaila Sims is a public historian and museum educator specializing in African American history. Originally from Riverside, California, Sims received her BA in History and African American Studies from Oberlin College and her MA and PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. She has held positions at several museums, archives, and cultural institutions, including the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Harry Ransom Center, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Sims currently serves as the Curator of African American History and Special Projects at the Fredericksburg Area Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Follow her work here.

Have something to say on this topic? Reply to this post! Or email the Elephant about writing for us. We welcome submissions from stakeholders on all sides of scholarly publishing. Find us on Twitter @HNetBookChannel and use the hashtag #FeedingTheElephant. You can also find us on Mastodon at @FeedingTheElephant@h-net.social.