By: Candace Forbes Bright, PhD, Perry L. Carter, PhD, Arnold Modlin Jr., PhD, Stephen P. Hanna, PhD, Amy E. Potter, PhD, and Derek H. Alderman, PhD
Article Title, Issue and Volume:
The Local Role of Southern Tourism Plantations in Defining a Larger Southern Regional Identity as Reflected in Tourists’ Surveys
What is the main purpose of your study?
The purpose of this study is to better understand the regional variations in tourists interests at plantation museums. We collected data from tourists at 17 plantation museums in three distinct sub-regions of the American South and used this data to better understand regional cultural diversity in representations of the antebellum South. We focused on tourists’ interests in topics like slavery and the role of women on the plantation, among others in three regions: River Road, Louisiana; Charleston, South Carolina; and James River, Virginia.
What are the practical, day to day, implications of your study?
Our memory and understanding of history are shaped by our surroundings – by landscapes. Place matters. And history or rather narratives of the past matter too. Even when we read extensively about event-specific or period-specific places such as a historic district or battle site, our understanding and view of it change upon visiting it and being in a place we associate with the past. There exist regional differences in how the past is remembed and how historical landscapes are represented. Even very similar places such as an antebellum plantation site that we might associate with a region’s history are framed by the locality by which it is surrounded. These differences can be captured through tourist interests at plantation museums to understand the relationship between tourism and how people view local regional histories of the American South. These local contexts, influence tourists’ views of more than just the architecture of the site, but also influence how tourists remember and think about slavery, women and even wealth. This article looks at how tourists visiting plantation sites in three localities across the U.S. South vary between areas in their interests in topics associated with historic plantations of the U.S. South.
How does your study relate to other work on the subject?
While the study of plantation museums is of growing importance in the tourism literature, these existing studies have tended to focus on a single site or a single region. This study examines data collected at several southern plantations across multiple regions in the U.S. Southeast. Therefore, we advance the current body of literature on both plantation museums and the American South.
Much of the current scholarly work focus on a single site or set of sites in a smaller area within the U.S. South. Our work does similar deep research at several historic sites but does so in three distinct localities located hundreds of miles from each other giving us a change to consider how region history for the U.S. South is often locally contextualized even before tourists visit sites considered representative of the entire region.
What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study?
Not only do we find that there are varying social representations across the three regions but we find that interest in the Enslaved and in the Role of Women play an important role in regional variations in these representations. We also find that there are demographics related differences in the tourist interests at plantation museums, particularly between women and men.
While many tourists visit these sites with similar expectations – to hear about the past – there are differences in what tourists expect to hear about at specific sites and these expectations are shaped by the location of the historic site. Tourists expect different topics to be focused on at a Southern plantation in Louisiana than at a Southern plantation in Tidewater Virginia or the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Yet, it is interesting that across the three locations we researched, most tourists arrive wanting to hear about the lives of enslaved people and the role of women at these historic sites.
What might be some of the theoretical implications of this study?
We find that each sub-region developed a unique identity despite their shared regional history. In other words, tourists through their tours encounter multiple Souths rather that a monolithic South.
How does your research help us think about Geography?
As noted above, it makes us realize once again that place does matter. That southern history and representations of southern history pass through the prism of specific places. While these histories and representations originate from the same source the light (the narratives) they reflect are all of a different quality. Additionally, this work contributes to the field of Southern Geographies by revealing the nuances Southernness and representations of southern history.
Local, historical cultural landscapes matter. With over 350 tourism plantations in the United States, we must be careful about extrapolating our findings at one site or one general location to the U.S. South as a region as a whole. While there is much literature on the subjective – often contested – nature of perceptual regions like the U.S. South, this research reminds us that perceptual regions can be expensive and partially inclusive of difference at a more immediate scale.