Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and Monticello to Explore Jefferson and Slavery

Two New Exhibitions to Explore the “Paradox of Liberty” at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
September 1, 2011
News Release

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will collaborate on a new exhibition, “Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” set to open in the NMAAHC Gallery in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Jan. 27, 2012.

“Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” will be presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. In an age inspired by the Declaration of Independence, slavery was pervasive―28 percent of the American population was enslaved in 1790.

By exploring Jefferson’s ideas and slavery at his plantation, Monticello and NMAAHC are examining one of the most difficult topics in American history. The exhibition will explore how the paradox of slavery in Jefferson’s world, and at Monticello, is relevant for all generations. “Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello” will provide a glimpse into the lives of six slave families living at the plantation. Through a variety of museum objects, works of art, documents and artifacts found through archaeological excavations at Monticello, visitors will see slaves as individuals―with names, family connections, values and achievements, as well as examples of deep marital and family connections, religious faith, efforts to gain literacy and education and tenacity in the pursuit of freedom. The family stories will be brought to the present via Monticello’s “Getting Word” oral-history project, which interviewed 170 descendants of slaves who lived on Jefferson’s plantation.

“Understanding the details of the lives of enslaved people adds to our understanding of history and our understanding of race relations today,” said Museum Director Lonnie Bunch. “We cannot have a clear view of Jefferson, or the founding of our nation, if we leave slavery out of the story.”

In addition to the exhibition at the NMAAHC gallery in the National Museum of American History, Monticello is undertaking the interpretation and long-term restoration of Mulberry Row, the hub of Jefferson’s plantation with 21 dwellings for enslaved and free workers, manufacturing workshops and storage sheds. A new exhibition, “Mulberry Row and the Landscape of Slavery at Monticello” will open in February 2012 featuring mini-exhibitions at key sites augmented by computer animations, a website and a smart phone app—all providing new ways for visitors to explore the past and understand the lives of slaves. Monticello also plans to re-create a slave dwelling, reinstate Jefferson’s original roads, mark the sites and outlines of lost structures and restore both of the remaining original buildings on Mulberry Row. The multifaceted approach is designed to help both “real” and “virtual” visitors understand Monticello’s complex world.

“As a result of Jefferson’s assiduous record keeping, augmented by 50 years of modern scholarly research, Monticello is the best-documented, best-preserved and best-studied plantation in North America,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Through our partnership, Monticello and NMAAHC have a unique opportunity to discuss slavery as the unresolved issue of the American Revolution and to offer Jefferson and Monticello as a window into the unfulfilled promise of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”

About Monticello

Thomas Jefferson Foundation was incorporated in 1923 to preserve Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Va. Monticello is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark and a United Nations World Heritage Site. As a private, nonprofit organization, the Foundation receives no regular federal or state budget support for its twofold mission of preservation and education. About 450,000 people visit Monticello each year. For information, visit


The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established by an Act of Congress in 2003 making it the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Scheduled for completion in 2015, it will be built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on a five-acre tract adjacent to the Washington Monument. Currently, during the pre-building phase, the museum is producing publications, hosting public programs and building collections. It is presenting exhibitions at other museums across the country and at its own gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. An array of interactive programs and educational resources is available on the museum’s website,

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