Imagine being able to travel back in time and get a taste of what it’s like to be enslaved in this country. Then imagine being able to travel to where people lived and worked with just a few mouse clicks. That is the goal of the groundbreaking new project Shifting Landscapes: Labor and Mobility in New Orleans. The project combines public history and digital technology to show where a young black woman lived and worked in New Orleans between 1853 and 1860. Professor Walter Greason brought his knowledge of racial slavery and digital design to the project. He explains why the Gallier House in New Orleans’ French Quarter was such an ideal location and what the project signals for the future of public history research.
The project tells the story of the Gauls family and their enslaved workers. who were they
During this time, the experience of life in urban slavery is likely brought to life in a way most people saw in the movie Django Unchained. The Gaul House is essentially a place where you can see the real story beyond what Quentin Tarantino and his team produced. In this case, the enslaved laborers who lived there had tremendous flexibility in structuring their days. Make no mistake, they were still enslaved; they were still someone else’s property. But by being able to walk through the French Quarter, visit Congo Square, participate in different types of cultural and religious celebrations, they enjoyed a different type of experience in slavery than other places like Charleston or Richmond at that time.
How was the Gaul House?
The Gaul House is a beautiful 19th-century mansion in the French Quarter. Imagine you arrive in a carriage – you have to open a big gate, you would get out and the carriage would pull up. Then you would go into the main entrance where you would see huge tapestries, rare carpets and extraordinary European furniture. That experience exemplified the experiences among the rich and famous of the early 19th century, and that in turn is the basis of industrial wealth with the likes of Andrew Carnegie in the next generation. They all aspire to that standard of urban enslavement where people celebrate their wealth by inviting their friends over for dinner. What I find is one of the best parts of the virtual tour, the dining room, which features art, exceptional china, and rare sterling silver utensils. This is how the original American “lifestyle of the rich and famous” was imagined.
There’s the front of the house, if you will, and then there’s the back. What does the back of the house look like?
If during the tour you can go out on the porch and see where the enslaved people lived, that’s one of the most valuable conservation works for me. You can see that the rooms were not ornately decorated. They are executed in an extraordinarily minimalist way. But in it you see that there is still a dignity in how the space is held. There’s still this idea that I don’t control that much in my life, but in this space – where I sleep, where I find privacy – there is a certain dignity here for people who are held as property in this environment. That, for me, was the extraordinary take on Laurette, which addressed what she could do to have some dignity on her own terms.
Who was Laurette?
Laurette was a young woman who worked as a maid at Gallier House, which meant she was busy cooking and cleaning. She was one of the main servants when the family was entertaining. She was responsible for maintaining the image of wealth and exceptional prosperity that the Gauls wished to cultivate on the site. In carrying out that work—in preparing rare and luxurious meals, and in displaying and keeping clean all the unusual artifacts that lined the front of the house—she was the curator.
This experience is very different from what we usually see in images of enslavement on rural plantations, with cotton picked, with big houses that are isolated and have a very different understanding of how to maintain them. In this urban context, the wealth and prosperity of this family was in the hands of this young woman. This is one of the pieces that is amazing to me. Barely a teenager, she was able to construct a worldview that both reassured and comforted the family who owned the property. It then became a landmark for contemporary visitors who came to see how the Gauls lived in the 1850s.
What do you hope for the user from this experience?
We hope that the user will develop a deeper understanding of a story that has not yet been told. You will be able to find perspective and ask new questions (and find new answers) that were not available before this exhibition came to life. So as you go through and reflect on the preconceived notions of enslavement, you begin to question your own perspectives and see the world through different eyes.
What do you think is the coolest thing about this project?
For me, the coolest thing about the project is the way it prompts us to create many virtual spaces that illustrate history. A big part of what I do here at Macalester is applying virtual reality tools so people around the world can experience history. This Gaul House project is the first of several we are undertaking to actually capture and display part of what I call “Black Rivers”. These are historic black communities across the Mississippi watershed. Saint Louis, Omaha, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Bismarck (North Dakota) – these are places that people don’t normally visit and we want to offer this experience through Augmented Reality or VR technology. In the years to come, these experiences will all become reality.
Central to this process is the use of technology to make public history accessible and, most importantly, interactive. Public history using digital technologies is growing in popularity. It creates new jobs and whole new industries. In a recent class, my students asked if historians could actually be expected to know how to produce digital content. My response was, “Yes, that’s actually the future of the profession.” In 50 years or less, producing virtual tours like that of the Gallier House will be a standard aspect of what we do as historians.