Publication Date

February 21, 2024

Perspectives Section



  • United States


Public History

How does a historic site tasked with interpreting the life of Thomas Jefferson approach its work at a moment in which the United States is simultaneously looking ahead to the 250th commemoration of the nation’s founding and grappling with the political and intellectual complexities of teaching difficult chapters from its past? AHA member and historian Jane Kamensky will embrace this challenge as the new president of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation and home outside Charlottesville, Virginia.

Jane Kamensky

Jane Kamensky becomes president of Monticello in time for “a generational opportunity to think about what unites and inspires us as a people.” © Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Kamensky joins historians across the nation as they plan commemorations of the nation’s founding. From state commissions and historical societies to museums and town councils, the 250th is prompting conversations and collaborations among people working at a range of public history and scholarly institutions as they plan for museum exhibitions, events, and history and civics education activities.

Many of these discussions address the complex historical significance of Thomas Jefferson—the Declaration’s principal author, architect of religious and expressive freedoms, the third president of the United States, and a man who enslaved hundreds of people during his lifetime. Jefferson’s powerful rhetoric established human equality at the core of America’s ideals. Yet his writings and actions did little to prevent slavery and racism from continuing to play a central role in US history. The contradictions between the founding ideals of liberty and equality and the persistence of enslavement in the United States have been central to recent fraught debates over teaching America’s past.

Kamensky comes to Monticello from Harvard University, where she had served since 2015 as the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History and the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard Radcliffe Institute. A historian of the Atlantic world and United States, Kamensky is the author of several books, including, most recently, the prizewinning A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley.

“I’m excited to work as an educator, and with educators, to think with a much larger and wider swath of Americans, and with visitors from around the globe.”

Perspectives on History spoke with Kamensky about her move to Monticello, the organization’s plans for the 250th, and engaging people through history.

You are making an institutional shift from a university and research library to a nonprofit organization that manages and interprets a National Historic Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site. What motivated you to make this move?

The four-digit answer? 2026. If not now, when? We’re approaching a generational opportunity to think about what unites and inspires us as a people. The United States is deeply divided—as polarized as we’ve been since 1968, if not 1861. I’ve loved thinking with college students about the nation’s complex history and the tool kit it offers us for building a national house worthy of its foundations: the highest ideals of the founding era. But the university classroom is a small and rarified place. I’m excited to work as an educator, and with educators, to think with a much larger and wider swath of Americans, and with visitors from around the globe. Every tour that spends even 45 minutes at Monticello is a focus group of the wisdom of the American people. And they get to learn from a rigorous past and talk to each other about the present and the future. To participate in that work will be the capstone of a fortunate career.

What role do you imagine Monticello playing in the lead-up to and commemoration of the 250th?

Monticello means to use the opportunity of the semiquincentennial to hold courageous conversations that look to the past to understand a vexed present and anticipate a more perfect future. We will continue to recover the lifeworlds of all the people of the mountaintop—Black, Euro-American, and Native—and to think about American history as a chorus of voices, sometimes dissonant, as well as the soaring song of rare intellectuals like Jefferson. We also need to collaborate with a wide range of partners within and beyond Virginia to do the hard work of public history: looking honestly at where we’ve been, learning across our differences, finding the way forward. That’s slow, patient work, the work of generations. But the semiquincentennial is a great tent pole to hang it on.

You have spent much of your career teaching undergraduate and graduate students. Many Perspectivesreaders might wonder: Will you miss the university classroom? What do you look forward to in educating the public in a different venue?

I was lucky to teach extraordinary students for three decades, first at Brandeis University and last at Harvard. I won’t lose what I’ve learned from that privilege, nor will I lose treasured ties to those amazing young people. I see this new role as teaching in a different form and context—one from which I have as much wisdom to learn as I do to impart. I’m especially excited to work with a broad range of site-based educators, from frontline interpreters to our remarkable staff of civic educators, librarians, archaeologists, horticulturalists, curators, and more.

What opportunities and challenges does Monticello offer for teaching hard histories about the American past?

Monticello was Jefferson’s laboratory, continually renovated and revised. It was the nursery of the ideas that inspired the Declaration of Independence. It was also a large-scale plantation, enslaving hundreds of men, women, and children over generations. The place crystallizes the highest aspirations of our constitutional democracy and our deepest and most persistent national challenges. It’s a perfect emblem for the work behind us, in front of us, and ahead of us.

Preserving the histories of those enslaved families and their descendants is the impetus behind a major oral history initiative at Monticello. What roles do descendant communities play in knowledge production at the site?

Monticello has been seeking to recover enslaved lifeways and voices for decades. Archaeologists began excavating the material worlds of Black Monticello in the late 1980s; the Getting Word African American Oral History Project launched in 1993 to preserve the knowledge of people enslaved at Monticello and their descendants. Over 30 years, the oral history program has grown in amazing ways, most recently under the auspices of a multimillion-dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and under the leadership of Getting Word director Andrew Davenport. Those funds will allow more interviews to be conducted, as well as the readying of transcripts, audio, and video for a wide range of researchers.

I met numerous descendants at the centennial celebrations of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation last November in New York. Their passion for living history is inspiring, as is their commitment to Monticello as a site of inquiry, healing, and even joy. Ascendant, an exciting program held last summer, offers thrilling testimony to this powerful and ongoing work. Getting Word emphasizes one of the core truths of American history: we are all, every day, the nation’s founders. We all make and are made by history.

“My colleagues speak often about the power of place: the ways learning clicks when it’s tied to a situated, shared, and sensory experience.”

Monticello, like many historic sites, offers a range of sources by which to access that history, ranging from the Getting Word oral histories to its landscape and archaeological evidence to its built environment, furnishings, and documents. In what ways does this multiplicity of sources shape how people learn history at Monticello?

The breadth of that source base is one of the key attractions of the site for our mission-driven staff and for hundreds of thousands of curious visitors every year as well. My colleagues speak often about the power of place: the ways learning clicks when it’s tied to a situated, shared, and sensory experience. The power of place offers a grounding to appreciate complexity. People come for the beauty and are caught up short by the horror of enslavement. People come to learn the history of enslavement and are caught up short by the beauty. In a world of no/but, Monticello demands a both/and approach. The breadth of Monticello’s source base also echoes the breadth of Thomas Jefferson’s own commitments: to architecture and learning, to liberty in the midst of slavery, to the American West and to Europe. So many pasts and futures reside in his biography as well as in the variegated primary sources that even a casual visitor to the mountaintop encounters.

You mentioned the need for collaboration with a wide range of partners. Reflecting on your transition from Harvard and the Schlesinger Library to Monticello, what do you think these types of institutions stand to gain by working together?

To the AHA’s motto “everything has a history,” I might add “history is everywhere.” Academic historians gain when they understand how our research is being used beyond college and university walls. And we ought, in my view, to go further than what I call the Trenton model: scholars make, other educators take. Hearing the inquiries that other kinds of researchers—from K–12 students and teachers to site visitors—bring to the past can and should inform scholarly research agendas. This feels particularly urgent in American history. Many scholars of US history have moved past the nation as a category of analysis. But our publics still care deeply about the nation, and we ought to heed them. Is it churlish to point out that libraries, museums, national parks, and historic sites all sustain much higher levels of public trust than higher education does? The AHA’s own research points this out. AHA members like me need to think about what that means for where, how, and with whom we practice our craft.

What advice would you offer current history students as they consider career possibilities?

It’s a big world out there! We need trained historians in every level of education and in every kind of classroom. Too many history graduate programs are just beginning to take public history seriously as a source of scholarship and methods as well as a career path. Yet year after year, I read statements of purpose from prospective graduate students recalling the moment in their youth when history came alive for them—and it was often at a historic site! Even as scholars train in undergraduate and postbaccalaureate settings, I hope they’ll keep that sense of wonder alive—and think, too, about the places that inspired them as meaningful locations to invest their own time and talents. I look forward to continuing as an AHA member under this new hat, and to flying the flag for public history and civic education as sites of peerless research, teaching, and learning opportunities.

Sarah Weicksel is director of research and publications at the AHA.

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