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VCU Archaeology

Developing a Teaching Kit for Studying 18th and 19th Century African American Material Culture

by Jessica Evans, Virtual Curation Laboratory Intern

After months of working in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, yesterday morning I began uploading 3D artifact scans and labels to Sketchfab.com/virtualcurationlab. The automatic motions of uploading files and copying and pasting descriptions are the culmination of a five month project to develop a virtual exhibit, physical exhibit, and teaching kit on African American material culture in the 18th and 19th centuries. With an emphasis on enslaved people in Virginia, these objects tell stories that many modern audiences probably haven’t heard before.

My name is Jessica Evans, and I am thrilled to be working on this project for the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) at Virginia Commonwealth University. I have a lifelong obsession with museums, so when I began my research in May, I hoped both to learn about each individual object and to design a successful exhibition. I also hoped to offer educational materials, develop meaningful subgroups, create standard ID information and put everything together in thoughtful physical and virtual exhibitions. It was an ambitious and long process.

2133_gw_false_teeth_half

George Washington’s false teeth from George Washington’s Mount Vernon

After researching a variety of objects from multiple locations, I developed a series of subcategories that united objects made of different materials and from different contexts into one overarching theme. My favorite is called “Money.” “Money” includes various pipes, buckles, and even George Washington’s dentures to offer a basis for discussion about the role of buying and selling objects in the lives of people who were themselves bought and sold. How enslaved people acquired objects like the strap and shoe buckles is not confirmed, but archaeologists argue that they could have either been gifts or purchased. The schist pipe blank and pipe represent one of the ways in which enslaved people could earn money. Archaeologists point to these objects a things that enslaved peoples may have manufactured and sold to earn money outside of the plantations on which they lived.

548_poplarpipe

Schist smoking pipe from Poplar Forest.

Clearly, not every element of the economy of enslaved peoples was so ethical. Despite the rumor that George Washington’s dentures were wooden, the truth is more gruesome. Washington’s dentures actually have a variety of materials including human teeth. While it was common practice in the 18th century to purchase teeth from poor people, in 1784 George Washington purchased nine teeth from several “Negroes” for 122 shillings, less than a third of the price advertised to poor white Americans. They were likely enslaved people living at Mount Vernon. This story allows viewers to consider pay discrimination, the purchase (in this case in pieces) of black bodies, and the extreme lack of choices an enslaved person would have had. Together, these two buckles, two pipes, and dentures present brief snapshots of the enslaved economy.

Perhaps the most significant lesson to be learned is that simply looking at an object does not foster learning. The importance of the object is in its ability to tell a story, and in the curator’s ability to present that story.

You can download many models for further research and even 3D printing from the VCL Sketchfab site in our digital  African American History Collection. In a subsequent post, we will include the text for the teaching kit.

 

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