Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Museum on Maryland Slavery at "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in Bethesda

I came across this article today on the Bethesda Patch website (links in the original):

Plans to develop a museum at the North Bethesda historic site known as Uncle Tom's Cabin are moving forward after the Montgomery County Planning Board voted to approve the park's master plan Dec. 2.
The 1.5-acre park is a portion of what was the Isaac Riley plantation, the farm of a Maryland slave-owning family where the Reverend Josiah Henson lived and worked before escaping from slavery. Henson's autobiography inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The master plan outlines the ultimate vision for the museum, with goals to interpret Josiah Henson as a historic character and to educate the public about slavery in Maryland. The museum could open its doors as early as 2016.
Going along with a recommendation by Park and Planning cultural resources staff, the Planning Board asked staff to study a "moderate" development plan that would include opening the museum to the public every weekend between February and November, installing interpretive panels and interactive displays, dedicating a full-time staff member to the site, developing a brief introductory film about Henson and an online portal, easing access to the site with plans for five parking spots and a bus pull-off, and installing permanent restrooms. Initial cost estimates put the project at between $3 and $5 million.
The site is currently open to the public only four times a year and for special requests, though there are plans for the site to be open each weekend in February in recognition of Black History Month.
The Planning Board voted to approve the master plan – which was developed with input from the community – and change the name of the park from Uncle Tom's Cabin Special Park to Josiah Henson Special Park. The project will now move into the facility planning phase, in which more specific design and cost estimate elements will be investigated.
The project has come under some scrutiny after it was learned the historic cabin located on the site was never in fact occupied by Henson. Archaeologists discovered after the Parks Department purchased the property that the cabin was constructed after Henson left the site.
Cover of Uncle Tom's Cabin (courtesy of Wikipedia)
I have not yet visited this site, but I am not alone, considering that it is only open four times a year!  Now, with a museum and plans to extend opening hours, many local residents and visitors from outside the area will have the opportunity to learn about the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's controversial 1852 novel that stirred passions leading up to the Civil War.  The plans to explore the history of slavery in Maryland will put the site in context and educate the public about the role of the "peculiar institution" in a slave state that remained in the Union.

More information about the site, and Montgomery County's master plan, can be found here.

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