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Scholars debate museum
Chicago symposium ponders how Fredericksburg museum can best tell slavery's story

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Date published: 5/7/2003

Meeting focuses on how to tell story of slavery

When scholars, museum professionals and others gathered in Chicago last week to share their ideas for the National Slavery Museum, they focused more on asking important questions than an-swering them.

Earl Yates, the museum's executive director, said yesterday the two-day planning session centered largely on one big question: "Exactly what is the story that is to be told--where does it start, where does it finish, and what can you include in it?"

Yates said seeking the answer will be "an ongoing matter" that will guide the museum's development.

Last week's event, which brought together experts in history, museum design and management, fund raising and organizational development, was the museum's second brainstorming session. The first was held at Howard University in Washington last year.

Yates said the museum hopes to hold similar sessions each spring, or perhaps more frequently, until it opens its doors in 2007. Conceived by former Gov. Douglas Wilder a decade ago, the museum is slated to be built on 38 acres along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg's planned Celebrate Virginia tourism complex.

Other questions raised at the symposium dealt with the designing the building, planning its exhibits, acquiring collections and soliciting funds in an unstable economy, Yates said.

Although most symposium attendees are not members of the museum's board of directors or advisory panel, Yates said they have agreed to continue participating in the planning effort. They include a Smithsonian Institution official, the president of the Chicago Historical Society, the vice president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and professors from Howard, Hampton and Brandeis universities.

Joseph Harris, chairman of the museum advisory panel and a Howard University history professor, said he plans to call on the expertise of that group--and others--frequently.

"This is a new venture, and I think we ought to be open to the views of others, whatever their views may be," said Harris, who took part in the event.

Yates said he is excited about ways the museum can collaborate with other institutions and is planning to tie some of its programs to those offered by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He plans to make a presentation to the museum's board of directors soon on the ideas that came out of the symposium.

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