Two new exhibitions to explore the ‘Paradox of Liberty’ at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello


Washington, D.C. -- Monticello and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) today announced their collaboration on a new exhibition entitled “Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” set to open in the NMAAHC Gallery in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on January 27, 2012.

“Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” is presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Together, the institutions hope to inform discussion and encourage understanding of slavery and enslaved people in America through the lens of Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. In an age inspired by the Declaration of Independence, slavery was pervasive―22% of the American population was enslaved in 1790.

By exploring Jefferson’s ideas and slavery at his plantation, Monticello and NMAAHC are examining one of the most difficult topics in American history. The exhibition will explore how the paradox of slavery in Jefferson’s world, and at Monticello, is relevant for generations beyond Jefferson’s lifetime. It will provide a glimpse into the lives of six slave families living at Monticello.

Through a variety of museum objects, works of art, documents and artifacts found through archaeological excavations at Monticello, visitors will see enslaved people as individuals―with names, family connections, values and achievements. Visitors will also see examples of deep marital and family connections, religious faith, efforts to gain literacy and education and tenacity in the pursuit of freedom. The family stories will be brought to the present via Monticello’s Getting Word oral history project, which interviewed 170 descendants of those who lived in slavery on Jefferson’s plantation.

“Understanding the details of the lives of enslaved people adds to our understanding of history, and our understanding of race relations today. We cannot have a clear view of Jefferson, or the founding of our nation, if we leave slavery out of the story,” said Lonnie Bunch, Director of the NMAAHC.

In addition to the exhibition at the NMAAHC gallery in Washington, D.C., Monticello is undertaking the interpretation and long-term restoration of Mulberry Row, the hub of Jefferson’s plantation with 21 dwellings for enslaved and free workers, manufacturing workshops, and storage sheds. A new exhibition, “Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello” will open in February 2012 featuring mini-exhibitions at key sites augmented by computer animations, a website and a smartphone app—all providing new ways for visitors to explore the past and understand the lives of enslaved people. Monticello also has plans to re-create a dwelling for enslaved people, reinstate Jefferson’s original roads, mark the sites and outlines of lost structures and restore both of the remaining original buildings on Mulberry Row. The multi-faceted approach is designed to help both “real” and “virtual” visitors understand Monticello’s complex world.

“As a result of Jefferson’s assiduous record-keeping, augmented by fifty years of modern scholarly research, Monticello is the best documented, best preserved, and best studied plantation in North America,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Through our partnership, Monticello and NMAAHC have a unique opportunity to discuss slavery as the unresolved issue of the American Revolution and to offer Jefferson and Monticello as a window into the unfulfilled promise of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”

Visitors are encouraged to visit both locations in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the paradox of liberty and slavery at Monticello. 


About Monticello

Thomas Jefferson Foundation was incorporated in 1923 to preserve Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia. Monticello is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark and a United Nations World Heritage Site. As a private, nonprofit organization, the Foundation receives no regular federal or state budget support for its twofold mission of preservation and education.  About 450,000 people visit Monticello each year. For information, visit

August 30, 2011

Adrienne Caruso

James Gordon


About the NMAAHC

The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established by an Act of Congress in 2003 making it the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution.  Scheduled for completion in 2015, it will be built on the National Mall on Washington, DC on a five-acre tract adjacent to the Washington Monument. Currently, during the pre-building phase, the museum is producing publications, hosting public programs and building collections. It is presenting exhibitions at other museums across the country and at its own gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. An array of interactive programs and educational resources is available on the museum’s web site