American Studies in the News

On December 19, 1995 the Library of Congress installed an exhibition on slave life curated by GWU American Studies Professor John Michael Vlach. Entitled "Back of the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation," the exhibit consisted of images of plantation buildings from the LOC collections matched with the testimonies of former slaves recorded during the 1930s. The show had already been seen at four other venues in South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas, but at the Library of Congress the content proved so offensive to a number of African-American employees that the exhibit was removed within a few hours.

By December 21 this closing had become front-page news in the Washington Post and by the next day a related AP wire story appeared in more than 300 papers nation-wide. Vlach was interviewed by TV crews from ABC, CBS, and CNN as well as by reporters for Public Radio in Germany and South Africa. Editorials on the closing of the exhibition also appeared in the Times of London and Paris Le Monde. For a moment, the whole world was watching and was puzzled why the LOC would shut down its own show in its own building.

Within a week an invitation to reopen the exhibition came from the DC Public Library. On January 17, 1996 "Back of the Big House" opened with much fanfare at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Reporters from the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and the Wall Street Journal covered the event. A week later Vlach walked reporter PBS reporter Charlayne Hunter-Gault through the exhibition; this interview was subsequently broadcast as ten minute feature on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. This notoriety not only increased interest in the exhibition but garnered further sollictations from exhibit venues. The show ultimately toured to eighteen sites.

Click here to see the exhibition.

For further information about this event consult the following:

Stephen Dubin, Displays of Power: Memory and Amnesia in the American Museum (NY UP, 1999), pp. 55-62.

Mark Fischer, "Library of Congress Scraps Plantation Life Exhibit," Washington Post, Dec. 21, 1995, A-1.

Paul Goldberger, "Historical Shows on Trial: Who Judges?", New York Times, February 11, 1996.

Kathleen Koch, "Some Museum Exhibits Held in Check for Content", CNN, December 29, 1995.

David Nicholson, "The Costs of Cultural Blackmail," Washington Post, Dec. 24, 1995, C-2.

Editorial Page, "Library on Tipetoe," Washington Post, Dec. 22, 1995, A-18.

John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1993).

_____, "Confronting Slavery: One Example of the Perils and Promises of Difficult History," History News 54, no. 2 (1999), 12-15.

Lee Rosenbaum, "Slavery Abolished by Feds, Rises Again".  Wall Street Journal, January 25, 1996, A:21.

Weeks, Linton.  "Plantation Life Display Revived; MLK Library Picks Up Exhibit Library of Congress Dropped."  Washington Post, January 4, 1996, A1.