Charles: I do not think that everything has to be interpreted. I think this To Try All Things exhibit I would say that at least one of the design philosophies of it is that; it is not unlike what you might do as a historian. Things are there and we hope the visitors find them and absorb them and we hope that we have put them in interesting juxtaposition to each other so that people make the connections and get a big picture.
If you tried to do - the show has a lot of text, I will not say it does not, but if you try to interpret every single piece, maybe that is just plain overwhelming and gets down to some small details while missing some much bigger ones or much bigger views. I am trying to look for a picture of - okay. There is an end exhibit area, which is here. It is down at one end of the exhibit, but these are cases with artifacts in them, Betty Hemings’ house, farm quarter, Stewart house, you are not seeing the artifacts in them, you are seeing the humidity controls, but the background here is what I wanted to point out. These cases come up in front of there.
Staples: Showing him the section to the left there.
Charles: We took - the most detailed information about the slave families at Monticello is in Jefferson’s farm book and it is almost the only place where Sally is mentioned, in just lists of slaves. We took these lists and took four of the ones we thought were the strongest and made them huge. One of them in the front here is the Souls of my Family one, where he literally counts them.
We were struggling in this exhibit, we had so many little pieces and how do you tie all these little pieces together. An idea we came up with, if I can find another picture, is to do these huge background murals. This is one for one section, there is another whole wall, but I am not finding Bob’s floor plan which is kind of interesting. One long wall talks about agriculture, no his garden, his agriculture, his industry, and his house, all of which he is doing experiments. We are talking about the kind of Enlightenment experimentation and ideas he is bringing here. You have all this little stuff and lots of text, so to tie them together we came up with this idea, these great big background murals.
Charles: It is also covering up some windows that the architects put there that drove us crazy. The slave ones are in effect doing that at this end. We actually came up with the idea of doing the slave ones. It is one of those things that you kind of hope, you are a little afraid if you say - how do I put it? Rather than suggest in advance we might do this, we just decide let us do it, see what it looks like, we thought it was going to work. Then we presented it to the client to say “hey here is an idea of how to sort of get slavery front and center without pushing it in everybody’s face.” It is there equal to all this other stuff that we are doing in this great big way with these great big lists. They loved it, they thought it was great. It was one of those days that you do not know when you are going into a meeting how it is going to work.
Staples: By that time we had a comfortable relationship with Susan and everybody.
Charles: We had a great relationship.
Staples: So you do not feel like you are going into a corporation board meeting, you go in with an opportunity to discuss.
Thelen: You are going to have a conversation.
Charles: Absolutely, it has been a fabulous relationship.
Thelen: That would be sort of a model of what you hope happens. When it happens it is pretty nice and it does not always happen.
Staples: Occasionally you have to back up to go forward.
Charles: Susan, it is an interesting story. I thought I brought some napkins, or I had them on the tray, but you took the tray away.
Staples: The tray is out there.
Charles: We had interviewed, we were talking yesterday about interviewing for jobs.
Staples: I hope you can explain this awkward discussion.
Thelen: Note, Barbara is now eating a muffin, end note.
Charles: It is very good.
Thelen: It is very good.
Charles: I am going to put it down. In the early eighties, I would say eighty-three, eighty-four, we were asked to compete on the Joslyn project, which was Views of Vanishing Frontier, the Bobmer exhibit going up the Missouri River and we won that competition and Ralph Applbom was another competitor. I know we all bring up Applebom, he is sort of the big gorilla in this whole exhibit world, has a huge firm now.
At this point we were all about the same size, about seven people I would say, or under ten, I do not know exactly how big his office was. We won that one, but I think a year later was the interviews for the first visitors’ center at Monticello. We had known Susan when she was at the Octagon here in Washington. She had invited us to be one of the people to compete. We lost that to Ralph and that was always a little bit of a disappointment, but Joslyn was pretty cool so we could not complain too much. In ’99 when we were invited to look at a visitors’ study, planning for a big visitor’s center, again the two finalists were our office and Ralph’s. Interestingly, the day of the interviews was the day that they announced; I think it was Nature Magazine, wherever the article came out about Jefferson’s DNA. It had come out that morning. I cannot say people were totally focused on the interview given the press that was swarming.
Thelen: Although it may have given a certain sharpness to the interviews, I am guessing.
Charles: We were selected to do this study. Following that, that was very interesting to me. It was really looking at not only what a visitors’ center could be and what the overall experience could be, but they had hired Jack Robinson and I cannot tell you the exact name of the firm, but I can correct that later, to do a whole study of the mountain top and where the visitors’ center would be and how that impacts what else you are doing, how long are people on the bus, what direction are they coming from, et cetera. They explored putting it at Chadwell from the east, they explored putting it, they finally settled on a site down at the bottom of the mountain. They were quite determined not to put it on any Jefferson land.
Eventually their site away fell, did not work out with the university. I think in the end it was good it did not work out. They put the visitors’ center on the old site of the old visitors’ center. So in a sense some land that was already polluted and that presumably if the architecture was kept low-level enough you would not see it from the view shed from the mountain. They picked an architect, Air Saintgroves. Our visitor interpretative study was given to the architects, we received a call saying, “you will be on our team,” which I probably mentioned yesterday that being under an architect is not the happiest place in the world.
We work going to continue to work on Monticello, that was exciting. We were already doing work on the dependencies, we had already done the Indian Hall. Then after a while we get a call from Susan saying that Dan Gerdin, the president, feels that they ought to, that they like Staple and Charles, they like our work, but they think that this is a very important project and they ought to be interviewing for it and not in effect make it a fate accompli. So we are one of the finalists. And Ralph Applebom was selected. We would joke we are on top on the mountain and he is down at the bottom of the mountain because we were still working up on the dependencies. That hurt, there is no question that hurt.
Thelen: How do you deal with that? I do not want to distract you, maybe find a glass of wine.
Staples: Exactly. You have to get over it, move on. Turn the other cheek.
Thelen: That must be tough. That sounds like a particularly tough one because you had…
Staples: A vested interest.
Thelen: And these were friends, so to speak or people that you had relationships…
Charles: Susan had always been great with us. In fact on this visitor study report, I really worked hard writing it and she called me one day and she said “Barbara, this is not your best work.”
Thelen: Well she is a friend in a certain way.
Charles: She is a great editor and we just knuckled down and went over the areas that she was concerned about and rewrote and rewrote. That was in September and I did a couple more drafts. That was the millennium New Years Eve and we were invited to Ohio and we did not go because I had to get this thing done. I am very proud of that report.
Anyway we heard, I think it was very early 2003 that Applebom was selected. Part of the archives will be our proposals, that we did not win. Then it was like April 2005, I got a call from Mike Merium who was heading up the project, from the point of view of getting it constructed and trying to figure out budgets and so on. He said, “can you update the budget you gave us a couple of years ago.” I said, “that does not make any sense, I do not have a clue what is going on.” He said something like “we do not either and your numbers are as good as anybody’s.”
Thelen: I see, that is how business is conducted in this world.
Charles: I do not know, I think every case is different. Everyone has to be very different. Do we have a fan not on in here?
Staples: It is not hot in here Barbara.
Charles: It is hot in here. Anyway, so I just said “all I can do is say if we think the inflation is five percent every year or seven percent, whatever numbers you want to use, I can just run the numbers again.” Monticello works very much on an April and November cycle when the board meetings are. This was, I am sure, around board time, what is the report, where are we going? I was actually in New York and you got the call from Susan. What did she say when she called?
Staples: I do not remember exactly what she said when she called, but the gist is, we would like you to come back. Jordon had, I guess, given Applebom notice that he was no longer to participate in this because of the lack of output or something. We got back on the case.
Charles: We have never seen, but Ralph did. Nobody talks about it.
Thelen: There is not a layer of Applebom in what I would see.
Staples: I do not think so.
Charles: Not in any of the exhibits, possibly in the architecture. In terms of influencing, but the exhibit was tabla rasa when we came in.
Thelen: Could I go back to the details of that visitors study? Were you actually interviewing visitors or were you imagining what visitors might experience in the future? What do you mean by visitors study?
Charles: Give me one second to see if I can find one.
Staples: Did you read that book already?
Thelen: I finished both volumes.
Thelen: I read the part about Robert Charles, pretty awesome. Who wrote it?
Staples: Marliyn Newheart. She was the wife of John Newheart. He was a graphic designer.
Thelen: Also a writer?
Staples: Not so much. He is more of a graphic artist. He worked, he was employed at UCLA as a professor.
Thelen: It is a pretty awesome book in terms of giving me a sense of the Eames world, the pictures, it is really a nice book.
Staples: If you are interested in the furniture, it is a nuts and bolts kind of thing.
Thelen: But it is also human beings and their having lives, I was pretty impressed. This is another footnote here, we are referring to a two volume book by Marlin Newheart and John Newheart called the story of Eames furniture. It is a beautiful set of books that illustrates the furniture and the lives of the people making it. Sorry, we are back to Monticello.
Charles: This is really imaging what the visitor experience could be.
Thelen: That is what I was hearing.
Charles: There were interviews, not by us, but I benefited from them. Exit surveys of what visitors were expecting. There were also some interviews with what one calls study groups…
Thelen: Focus groups?
Charles: Focus groups, about, from different places, New York City, Washington, would you come to Monticello, what would you want, et cetera. This is more, and we benefited from that, but this is much more trying to project what a future visitor experience could be and who all the visitors might be. What we certainly did learn and I actually spent a couple of days trying to figure out who is coming when.
They had never collated what hours of the day people are coming, when buses are coming, when families are coming. It is quite different during April and May, there is very heavy school group traffic. Summer you get families so it is a different kind of experience, people coming with their families. September is, I think this is true in almost every museum that has group tours, is one of the lowest months of the year because the kids have just come back to school so no bus trips have been organized yet. It is trying to think about how you are moving people through here and what should be the relationships of the spaces. We did bubble diagrams of the relationships of spaces, ideas for exhibits. At the very beginning are the three themes that we were talking about.
Thelen: That raises a big question for me, themes. In this article that you wrote in the Bladdy book on the Past meets the Presence. You talk about one of the key ingredients being the story and now we are talking about the theme.
Charles: Are they the same?
Thelen: Well, no, that might be the answer. In most cases I can imagine having lots of stories and lots of potential themes. In this case you are talking about cars, so the car in the twentieth century. The possible things to talk about a car in the twentieth century are large. The possible things to talk about at Monticello are large.
Charles: Let me find them and then I will try and talk about how that affects things.
Thelen: Just in a general manner.
Charles: I think it is important that you…
Thelen: Maybe it shouldn’t be a general manner.
Charles: I think you figure out what should be your main messages and you are basically using those as markers to check yourself against. Are you - is what you are now proposing working for that or is it now doing something else? If you were trying to talk about an exhibit on the evils of slavery, you would then want to find out whether - look at every example you are giving and whether that is supporting what you have said you want to do. It may not be what you should be doing.
Thelen: So there are two issues.
Charles: These are the three themes: Thomas Jefferson creating a nation, Monticello building an American icon, and Monticello discovering the plantation and community. Obviously this second one is done fairly well up on top of the mountain top with the house. In doing the visitors’ center, while we have a temporary exhibit about it, it was not intended to be the story in the visitors’ center. In the visitors’ center it was more important to get across Jefferson outside of Monticello, the whole influence on the nation, the world, that is done in the film and it is also done in the gallery we call liberty.
The plantation one we wanted to - one issue was to get across just even the breath of the plantation let alone the people. The people we have been talking about earlier. We had a huge bronze model, we designed it and suggested who could make it and so on that everyone can stand around and get a sense of Monticello house is that big on this six by nine foot model. It is really great and on it, sorry to keep walking away.
Staples: It is on the size of this table.
Thelen: A little tiny corner like size of a couple fingers.
Staples: Monticello is like that much.
Thelen: That is brilliant.
Staples: We have all the contours and the textures change for forest and fields.
Thelen: How do you, through what eye do you think of that? Do you think most people would expect that if you are doing something about Monticello that you focus on Monticello. Somehow you or you with the curators, let us take a sky view and see the whole plantation, where they are growing tobacco and where people are living and whatnot. How do you get to that perspective?
Charles: I think it is twofold. One is that they have a very extensive archaeology department, so they have been focused on the whole Monticello.
Thelen: So the client is focused there.
Charles: So the client is focused there, the challenge for us is well, that is great, how do we illustrate it and where do we illustrate it? I think it was really our idea to make this model. First to do the model at all, do this huge model. Then, secondly to - its position too. It is bronze, so it can be outside. These are the roundabouts. Those are his roads. Those are his road systems, that is Monticello right there, the building. That is Mulberry Row. This is the East Road, Chadwell was down over here. This is Milton the little town on the river that everything shipped out of, this is the Rivena River. Charlottesville is down over here. Everything that is light was land he owned now. Some of it obviously extended down here and up here, but all the fields that actually were tended are within the model.
Thelen: Do you know what was grown in the various places?
Charles: Oh, they do. They started out with a lot of tobacco and then go into wheat. They have done very very extensive studies. The model is fabulous. I mean people love it.
Thelen: I can see why.
Charles: You can get a whole school or group around it and then we can say if you go down that road that is how to go to Charlottesville. If you want to go to Washington or Richmond you take this road. Down this river you can get to London. So those are all really fun. The archaeology guys are great to work with.
Thelen: I am coming back to the theme or the perspective. So the client came up with the perspective. How did you get that theme?
Charles: They had been working around these themes for quite a while. At one point we actually had four themes; we had Jefferson, we had Monticello, the plantation and the people. Then we combined it to three themes. This was really working with Susan and Frasier from archaeology would be around the table and other people and so on. Sort of the inner intellectual powerhouses down there. You do not often have a client that has the depth of both on staff research and just a subject matter that has been researched for two hundred years.
Thelen: Right, good point.
Charles: It was felt we had to have some place that really gave you an overview of the plantation. Our idea was let us make this huge plantation model. Once you start saying well what scale should it be and so on and how big is it practical to actually make it. It is positioned not inside, it is positioned outside, so our hope is even if people do not go in the exhibit gallery they see this thing near the café and they get interested and hang around it and see what it is. You can touch it and so on. The only mistake we made here is people do not know where they are. We should have thought about a way and we could still potentially drill something. The visitors’ center is about here. People want to know that. It has been very well received.
Thelen: Stepping back, the question of theme and story, the story, the theme.
Charles: I think there is a lot of stories, but you do need to say what is your major theme or your major ideas you are trying to get across. [background noise] In planning with the team there what went where in the visitors’ center, we kept saying, “Okay we are covering this topic here we are covering this one here, we are covering that one here. We are overlapping, we are covering this one and this one here.” But try to get a sense if people went to each of the stations of the cross, that they would get all this perspectives.
Thelen: So if I were, if I came along and said, “no I think the perspective we need or the theme we need is this person or this slave who lived there tended this tobacco field.”
Charles: I would say that is a pretty small picture.
Thelen: Not for him.
Charles: If the site is Monticello…you mean if you want him?
Thelen: What I am really trying to do is understand how a theme gets surfaced, discussed and decided upon. I am being hypothetical here. Let us say I was trying to talk about slavery and one world of mircohistory. One way to do that would be to take the viewpoint of a slave or a particular slave family and what they do from day to day. They have nothing to do with Jefferson, well they do of course.
Charles:But they may be living some place very different.
Thelen: It is a potential perspective, it is a potential theme. I am not pushing this theme, I am just trying to understand. Well maybe it would be useful to talk about a debate, should we make this a theme or that a theme? Should we talk about this story or that story? You are saying a theme or a story is crucial to the design. You have to have that before. Maybe it is good to talk about how you come up with those.
Charles: Theme to me is the bigger subject. For example to pursue one slave, the discussions of who should be the people in To Try All Things, who you should focus on, why this one over this one, who do you pick for our six people down in Crossroads?
Part of the issue, of course, is who do you know anything about? Some slaves are much better documented. John Hemings who is literate and who is writing letters to Jefferson from Poplar Forest while he is down there finishing the interior woodworking is a pretty compelling character. And is he freed. That is another issue, who is freed by Jefferson and he says kind of why and so on versus who is not. Some do not live long enough, who runs away or is sold. There were a lot of discussions of who you pick and this is a discussion that at least for us has been going on for at least ten years because each of the areas in the dependencies, like when we first did the cook’s room in 2003, they picked the Faucet family. It is a very small room, not as big as this room. It probably has John Faucet, who is an iron worker, his wife Edie who is a cook and they had ten children, but maybe only five are still living with them in this space. We had already done the Faucet family, so do you do them again or do you do someone else? That has been one of the issues, they really have the riches of knowing a lot about their slaves because they have been doing all this research for so long.
We have been trying to pick different people different times. Burwell who is so important, is the maitre’d. He almost had to be in Crossroads because he is controlling the keys, he is the key person down here literally. Who is going to be saying now you get that done, we are doing this up here. He is also one of our important people upstairs. He is both a painter and the maitre’d. He is given his freedom. He is the only slave who buys things at the Monticello auction. He buys several things at the Monticello auction and they have the receipt for what he buys. You have got wonderful stories. Some of them, like Sally, it is much harder to make a story with them. Even though there is this whole side with Jefferson and we talk about that, when we are trying to actually show the documents which we usually try to do or have quotes, there is very little to show.
Great George and Ursula, Great George was the only black overseer, so he is an important person and he is near the plantation area. If you want to develop a story on somebody, I would say part of the real issue is what do you have to work with. I think increasingly what is really exciting that is going on is people are not using hypothetical information. They are trying to use real evidence.