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Charting the Plantation Landscape from Natchez to New Orleans – Q&A with Laura Kilcer

What sparked your interest in this area of research? 

The book is a natural extension of my work, which focuses on plantations both in their historical context as well as their cultural history—how their use, definition and significance has evolved into what we know as “plantations” today, which are largely museums, historic sites, and tourist destinations.

Could you give us a short overview of Charting the Plantation Landscape from Natchez to New Orleans

Absolutely, so Charting the Plantation Landscape from Natchez to New Orleans traces the same geographical area defined by ‘Persac’s Map’ with the aim of developing narratives missing from established ‘plantation literature/picture book’ genre. Couching the foreign with the familiar, the book presents expected topics, such as architecture and the designed landscape as well as challenging the reader to consider plantations as political landscapes, spaces of medicine, etc. This material is familiar in academia, but has largely been left out of publications aimed at a wider audience. The benefit of keeping the collection to such a defined geographic area is that in many cases the writer’s topics overlap, so the reader can have the benefit of developing a more complex and nuanced understanding of the plantations discussed.

How did this edited collection come to be? 

The series editor, Lake Douglas, was developing his Reading the American Landscape series, and we chatted about the need for a book that could bring some dimension to traditional plantation studies. From the beginning we knew that it was going to present the same geographic area through a variety of lenses, and so bringing on multiple writers was a natural development. Each was able to speak from their particular area of study, and the variety of voices underscored the same-area-different-lens methodology of the collection. Using “Persac’s Map” as a binding conceit also enabled us to preface the books intent with the clear understanding that precision is very different from truth, and we were interested in the truth of this complex landscape.

Could you touch on the value of using maps as a main primary source as well as any potential challenges they may bring? 

I’ve always found maps to be incredible resources, first in their absolutism and second in the fact that they are unable to hide their intent, purpose and associated biases. To the first point, the Library of Congress has in its holdings a print mapping lynchings across the US in the early 20th century. The map was sent by the NAACP to politicians to urge civil rights legislation, and while there were letters that preceded it and letters that followed, there is something inarguable about seeing racism mapped out across the United States. There are no words so there’s no room for argument, so to speak.* Maps have that power.

To the second point, there are times maps tell you more about the cartographer and the intended audience than they do about the subject itself. Far from being ambivalent or agnostic, they can’t help but reveal the particular priorities of their maker, and at least for me that is what makes them such a rich resource. Norman’s Chart of the Lower Mississippi, the map we used as our binding conceit for the book, is one of those maps. More commonly known as “Persac’s map”, it is ostensibly a wayfinding tool. It marks the river, ferry points, cities, etc. but what Persac chooses to include and not include is so much more interesting and revealing!

Could you tell us a bit more about your role at Oak Alley Foundation? 

Sure. Broadly, I’m responsible for the research that informs interpretation of the historic site, and how that research is brought to the public. It is a bit unusual in that I am the first curator OAF has had—and I was hired in 2011. On the one hand, starting from scratch is challenging. You have to determine where and what your resources are, what your interpretive latitude is, etc., but it’s also incredibly exciting. As scholars it’s rare that we’re handed a topic that has not been already combed over or unpacked in some degree by another scholar. So much of our time can be spent proving or disproving other’s work. Yet I was fortunate enough to have the support of the Foundation to take the approach of, “Assume everything we think we know is wrong. Let’s start from the beginning. What does the research tell us?” It is a hard scrabble but a worthwhile one. The database that is currently on our website is an example of what you can accomplish with an assume-nothing methodology, and it is an approach that we’re committed to continuing.

*For those interested, a great article on this particular map and others: https://theconversation.com/how-black-cartographers-put-racism-on-the-map-of-america-155081

Laura Kilcer VanHuss holds an M.A in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University. A historic site curator, she specializes in plantations’ cultural landscapes, with an interest in contemporary meaning-making in historic environments.

Charting the Plantation Landscape from Natchez to New Orleans is upcoming with LSU Press: https://lsupress.org/books/detail/charting-the-plantation-landscape-from-natchez-to-new-orleans/