We are designing a museum or exhibit hall, to be based in the Cathedral of St. John, dedicated to interpreting the history of slavery and the slave trade in Rhode Island, including the role of the Episcopal Church in this history.
Our museum will be modest in size but ambitious in scope, seeking to interpret for visitors the history of slavery and the slave trade. Visitors will be given a broad picture of the role of slavery in U.S. history, to provide context for what they are learning about slavery in Rhode Island and to avoid the impression that Rhode Island was unique in its complicity in slavery, but details will be drawn almost exclusively from the Ocean State itself. It will include the complicity of the Episcopal Church in Rhode Island in slavery, but will focus on the role of slavery and the slave trade in the history of the state as a whole.
This would be the first museum in the nation dedicated to interpreting this history. There are certainly museums which include the interpretation of slavery within their walls, as part of a broader subject matter. Perhaps the premiere example of this is the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., but the Rhode Island Historical Society also addresses slavery and the slave trade as part of its interpretation of Rhode Island history, and there are countless other examples. There are also many historic sites which interpret slavery on their site, such as the Royall House & Slave Quarters in Medford, Mass. or the Robbins House in Concord, Mass. And there are museums devoted to parts of the history of slavery, such as the Old Slave Mart in Charleston, S.C. (focused on the domestic slave trade among the southern states), or the new Whitney Plantation museum in Louisiana (interpreting southern plantation slavery). But there is currently no museum in the United States devoted to giving visitors a broad picture of the role of slavery in our history, even on a modest scale and placing local slavery in its broader context.
Layout and Development Process
The museum is intended to be housed primarily in lower hall (undercroft) of the Cathedral. It is envisioned to include a permanent exhibition interpreting the history outlined above, as well as a space for temporary exhibits relating to such topics as slavery, racism, and African-American history or contemporary artistic responses to be displayed on a rotating basis. We also envision opportunities for discussion and contemplation as an integral part of the museum experience. The permanent exhibit will not necessarily include historical artifacts, especially at the outset, but will include interpretive panels and a self-guided tour covering the history outlined above.
Before the museum is ready to open, we intend to offer a selection of its interpretive panels as a traveling exhibition, to visit congregations within the Episcopal diocese and, perhaps, other locations in the state as well. This would be a pop-up exhibition, which can be temporarily installed with minimal time and cost, at any desired location. The exhibition would raise awareness of the CFR’s plans for a museum, as well as the rest of its mission and programming. It would also serve to generate dialogue within the diocese, and the state, about the state’s history, about race, and about the need for a museum to interpret forgotten history and spark fresh discussion about race.
We anticipate that the visitors to our museum will include tourists and members of the general public, as well as participants in our programs, school groups, and participants in other educational programs. The scope of interpretation is intended to support our programs by offering participants, and prospective participants, with important historical background information. We believe this historical material is essential to all of our program offerings, and the museum’s interpretation will provide historical themes, information, and context to support what our program participants will learn and discuss about the past and the present. However, the interpretation offered at the museum will also serve well to support other programs aimed at educating about this history, as well as school groups, and will offer even casual visitors what they need to begin confronting historical myths about our nation’s history on their own. We are aware that many visitors to the National Roger Williams Memorial Park, which is across the street from the Cathedral, are likely to visit as part of their exploration of the history of Rhode Island.
This museum does more, however, than merely educating the general public and providing vital support for the CFR programs. It represents a significant commitment to the proposition that our history of complicity in slavery matters: not just to be acknowledged briefly, in order to quickly move forward with reconciliation, but to be examined in detail and taken seriously as a subject which must be understood thoroughly, in order to hope to achieve true reconciliation and justice. It will send a strong message to our churches and other faith communities and to citizens of Rhode Island that Episcopal Church and the Center for Reconciliation are serious about acknowledging our history and doing the hard work necessary to move on, together, from our shared past.