The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Massachusetts Historical Society
Boston, MA

Thomas Jefferson has been described as an “American Sphinx”: as the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and president of the United States, he is one of the most famous Americans, but his personal thoughts have remained elusive. The Massachusetts Historical Society opened the exhibition The Private Jefferson that uncovers the human Jefferson with digital displays, educational outreach, and a book that deepen our understanding of the founding of America and makes the show a leader in exhibition technology. MHS holds 9,500 manuscripts and drawings by Jefferson, a collection second only to the Library of Congress, and primarily made up of his personal writings. It is in these papers that you can catch a glimpse of his thoughts. He writes playful letters to his granddaughters, poignant reminiscences to his former adversaries, and instructions to his overseers about the value of enslaved women being their giving birth to new slaves. But Jefferson was more than a leader of the Revolution and more than a slave holder; this exhibition strives to understand the person who filled so many roles.

MHS partnered with Microsoft to address the challenges of displaying fragile historic documents. They engaged a team at Brown University that had designed the Touch Art Gallery app (TAG) who helped them to build an interactive digital exhibition that complements the physical display. This content is accessible through screens in each room that offer six interactive micro-documentaries and over 100 digital documents. The short documentaries are led by scholars Peter Onuf, Henry Adams, Andrea Wulf and MHS staff. They explore the themes of the physical exhibition: the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Adams, the farm and gardens at Monticello, Jefferson the architect, slavery, and Jefferson’s love of writing and books. The digital documents are high resolution and allow visitors to zoom in and explore the manuscripts in the exhibit and about thirty additional items. These documents are paired with twenty short videos of experts and staff sharing their thoughts on how these documents enlighten our understanding of his thoughts. The TAG app developed at Brown is now available as a free download at the Windows store. While the app was developed at Brown, all of the content in the Jefferson show was created, uploaded and edited by MHS staff. With a little help getting started, any computer literate person with a touch screen device could create an interactive exhibition component using TAG. This exhibit will serve as a model to others who want to increase access to fragile collections while still addressing preservation and deterioration issues.

MHS also made this content available to wider audience through the use of Skype in the Classroom. Students across America now have the opportunity for a live, guided tour of the exhibit. Screen sharing between TAG and Skype allows the students a clear interaction with the documents and architectural drawings. More than 1.5 million teachers across America are users of Skype in the Classroom, and this aspect of the project further enhances the museum’s mission of sharing Jefferson’s private side with a broader audience.