Imagine if you could go back in time and get a glimpse of what it was like to be enslaved in this country. Then imagine that you could travel to where the people lived and worked with just a few clicks of a mouse. That’s the goal of the groundbreaking new project Shifting Landscapes: Labor and Mobility in New Orleans. The project combines public history and digital technology to show where one young Black woman lived and worked in New Orleans between 1853-60. Professor Walter Greason contributed his knowledge of racial enslavement and digital design to the project. He explains why the Gallier House in New Orleans’ French Quarter was such an ideal location and what the project signals for the future of public history scholarship. 

The project tells the story of the Gallier family and their enslaved workers. Who were they?  

In this period, the experience of living in urban slavery is probably brought to life in ways most people saw in the film Django Unchained. The Gallier House is essentially a site where you can see the real history beyond what Quentin Tarantino and his team produced. In this case, the enslaved workers who lived there had enormous flexibility about how their days went. Make no mistake, they were still enslaved; they were still someone else’s property. But by being able to walk the French Quarter, by being able to visit Congo Square, by being able to engage in different kinds of cultural and religious celebrations, they enjoyed a different kind of experience within slavery than you would find in other places like Charleston or Richmond in that era. 

What was the Gallier House like? 

The Gallier House is a gorgeous 19th century mansion in the French Quarter. Imagine arriving there in a carriage – you have to open a large gate, you would disembark, and the carriage would pull forward. Then you’d walk into the main entryway where you would see enormous tapestries, rare rugs, and extraordinary European furniture. This experience illustrated the experiences among the rich and famous of the early 19th century, and that, in turn, is the basis of industrial wealth with people like Andrew Carnegie in the next generation. They’re all aspiring to this standard of urban enslavement where people celebrate their wealth by bringing their friends to dinner. What I find is one of the best parts of the virtual tour is the dining room where there is art on display, extraordinary china, and rare, sterling silver utensils. That is the way people imagined what the original American “lifestyles of the rich and famous” would be. 

There’s the front part of the house, if you will, and then there’s the back. What is the back of the house like?  

When you go up onto the veranda during the tour and you can see where the enslaved people lived, for me, this is some of the most valuable preservation work. You see that the rooms were not ornately decorated. They are done in a way that’s extraordinarily minimalist. But within that, you see that there’s still a dignity about how the space is kept. There’s still this idea that, okay, I don’t control so much in my life, but in this space — where I sleep, where I find privacy — this is where there is some dignity for folks who are held as property in this setting. That was the extraordinary insight about Laurette for me, which was looking at what she could do to have some dignity on her own terms.

Who was Laurette?

Laurette was a young woman working as a domestic servant in the Gallier House, which meant she engaged in cooking and cleaning. She was one of the primary servers when the family was entertaining. She was responsible for maintaining the image of wealth and extraordinary affluence that the Gallier’s wanted to cultivate on the site. In carrying out that work — in preparing rare and luxurious meals and presenting and keeping clean all of the unusual artifacts that were throughout the front of the house — she was the curator. 

This experience is very different from what we typically see in images of enslavement on rural plantations, with cotton being picked, with large houses that are isolated and have a very different sense of how they have to be maintained. In this urban context, the wealth and prosperity of this family was in the hands of this young woman. That’s one of the pieces that is amazing to me. She was barely a teenager, and she was able to construct a worldview that both soothed and comforted the family that owned the property. Then, it became a landmark for contemporary visitors that came to see how the Galliers lived in the 1850s. 

What are you hoping the user gets from this experience? 

We hope the user develops a deeper understanding of a history that hasn’t been told. You’ll be able to find a perspective and raise new questions (and find new answers) that weren’t available before this exhibit came to life. So, as you walk through and you think about the preconceived notions of enslavement, you start to challenge your own perspectives and see the world in a different way. 

What’s the coolest part about this project for you? 

The coolest thing about the project for me is the way it sets the tone for us to create a large number of virtual spaces that illustrate history. Much of my work here at Macalester is applying virtual reality tools to enable people to experience history all around the world. This Gallier House project is the first of several that we’re doing to actually capture and display part of what I call “Black Rivers.” These are historic Black communities across the Mississippi River watershed. Saint Louis, Omaha, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Bismarck (North Dakota) — these are places people don’t typically visit, and we’re looking to offer that experience through augmented reality or VR technology. In the next few years, these experiences will all become realities. 

At the heart of this process is using technology to make public history accessible and, more importantly, interactive. Public history that utilizes digital technologies is growing in popularity. It’s creating new jobs and whole new industries. My students asked in a class recently whether we can actually expect historians to know how to produce digital content. My answer was, “Yes, that’s actually the future of the profession.” In 50 years or less, the production of virtual tours like the one of the Gallier House is going to be a standard aspect of what we do as historians. 

March 15 2023

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