Over the last decade, there has been a resurgence of access to archives on slavery, says Ivetta Autumn Mobley.
A new exhibit, “Bodies of Information: Understanding Slavery through the Stearns Collection,” running through Jan. 4, 2022, at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, will explore how we can engage with these archives in new ways.
“We want to encourage people to think historically,” says Mobley, the museum’s director of interpretation, collections and education.
Print is a part of our everyday lives, and slavery shows up in those documents in many ways that are more nuanced, she says.
Visitors will be challenged to look at documents from the 19th century antebellum period of slavery prior to the Civil War, including newspapers, images, ads and bills of sale, the way that teachers, researchers and historians do.
Visitors find stories of the texts themselves, and there are those you find when you read between the lines.
If you think about what might be hidden in the text, Mobley says, you can see the power dynamics of that time period and how they shifted.
There were ways enslaved African Americans asserted their dignity and humanity despite a written record that did not represent that, she adds. For example, seeing ads for recapturing slaves shows how many slaves had been self-emancipating.
“These archives have shifted how we tell the story of slavery and how we understand slavery,” Mobley says.
The Stearns Family Slavery Collection consists of 87 pieces collected by Maryland resident Herbert Stearns over his lifetime, spanning more than 100 years and cataloguing the ways in which slavery was deeply embedded in American life. It was donated to the museum by some of his area descendants.
Stearns also took care to gather some items of Jewish history—as he noticed parallels of exclusion and oppression in the African American and Jewish communities.
The exhibit is interactive and will enable visitors to explore these archived materials using their senses.
Visual elements allowing them to delve deeper into the archives will be available via a QR code and will stimulate sight and sound, while a “smellscape” will attempt to capture what it’s like to be among the archives.
Most people don’t get the opportunity to go into archives, Mobley says. This exhibit allows the public to look at these historical documents more closely to help us better understand how slavery functioned and what impact it had, she adds.
For more information on the exhibit, visit lewismuseum.org.