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Published May 27, 2020

By Nora Pehrson

As Executive Director of the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History (DMFAH), Elsabé Dixon is currently overseeing a $10,000 grant from Virginia Humanities supporting production of a new orientation film for the museum.

Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History exterior. Image courtesy Elsabé Dixon

The film is just one part of the large-scale renovation taking place under Dixon’s leadership. Since becoming Executive Director in September 2019, Dixon has been working to redesign the museum’s exhibits to reflect a more complete narrative of Danville’s past, which includes slavery and the Civil War, Jim Crow era segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and present-day activism. The museum is itself the site of a fraught and complicated history—it was built in 1859 as a home for the slave-owning tobacco baron and industrialist William T. Sutherlin. One of the goals of the new orientation film is to make sure that visitors are aware of the complete history of Danville.

1. Tell us about your project.

We’re currently working on producing a new visitor service video called “Omitted History” that will foreground the Museum’s complex racial past, particularly its history of slavery and the later years (1928-1972) during which it functioned as a segregated public library. The video will also highlight the heroic actions of the local Civil Rights reformers who challenged the injustice of segregation by staging peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, and marches.

We currently acknowledge the importance of the Civil Rights Movement with a permanent timeline exhibition, but that’s not enough. We’re really working on fleshing out that timeline with specific, local events and detailed information about individual people – such as the unsung heroes of the civil rights struggle in Danville, the sites where they picketed, were arrested, fought their legal battles, and attended class at desegregated schools are an integral part of the history of the Sutherlin Mansion. The video is a way to make this history immediately visible. The whole historical narrative will be on the table when visitors first arrive.

2. Why is this work important?

The museum still largely focuses on the Confederate histories of the Sutherlin Family and Jefferson Davis’s one week stay in the Mansion before the Civil War ended. The current orientation video speaks mostly about these aspects of the site’s history while only mentioning slavery and segregation in passing. The “Omitted History” script corrects any remaining “Lost Cause” language and fills in omissions in the historical narrative.

These are challenging topics. The video needs to introduce not just the history of the Mansion architecture and the family who built this museum but also the histories that make it the place it aims to be today: an engaging and meaningful historical site for everyone, supported through vibrant arts and event programming. Difficult conversations can be initiated through cultural access, and community reconciliation can be achieved through programs that are mindful and equitable. The “Omitted History” visitor video seeks to make clear the museum’s goals of cultural accessibility, equity, and inclusion. We want to serve and include all of the Danville, Pittsylvania County, and Caswell County communities.

3. How is your project making a difference?

The video brings together and makes visible information that hasn’t necessarily been formally released in the Danville community; information that’s only recently been assimilated into concrete narrative form. I have an arts background, so I really believe that in order to assign something value, you have to start by putting it in a collection. Once something—a tangible thing like an artifact, or a less tangible thing like a memory or a story—is part of a collection, it becomes a larger entity that people can access. The video is an effort to give people immediate access to Danville’s history.

It’s also an opportunity for community healing, and a way to bring older and younger generations together through shared storytelling and listening. We’re really working on making the museum a gathering place and a center for sharing stories. It’s exciting to see the community come together over its own history.

4. What drew you to this work?

I feel personally connected to the community despite the fact that I’m not a Danville native. I’m a South African born immigrant who lived through the turbulent 1980s in Apartheid South Africa. As executive director of the DMFAH, I see the “Omitted History” video project as a peace and reconciliation project. It is a project that sheds light on dark days which took place in the Sutherlin Mansion, not with the aim of shaming and blaming, but with a focus on justice and honoring those Civil Rights activists who stood their ground to speak about how injustice anywhere affects justice everywhere.

6. What drew you to Virginia Humanities? Why did you apply here?

Virginia Humanities supported the Museum’s first Danville civil rights timeline exhibition in February 2019. That project was led by historian Emma Edmunds, who interviewed community members in order to construct the timeline and an accompanying collection of narratives on civil rights activists, lawyers, and law officials. The exhibition allowed visitors who had vowed never to enter the premises of the Museum to enter the site of the sit-ins once again on different terms. This time they could honor those civil rights narratives and the personal testimonials of civil rights leaders and their children and families.

The Museum Board decided to make the civil rights timeline a permanent feature of our collection titled THE MOVEMENT – Danville Civil Rights Histories. With additional text, and sporting an interactive voting booth and a Woolworths counter sit-in site, as well as interactive video station, it became one of the DMFAH’s best attended permanent exhibitions. 

Virginia Humanities has funded many progressive programming projects in the Danville region, including History United (a partnership with the Danville Regional Foundation), making it a vital resource for the state of Virginia and beyond. I am most inspired by the way Virginia Humanities demonstrates that history has power. That power can either unite us or divide us—it’s how we provide information that can reconcile differences or create chasms within our local communities. It’s up to us to run programs that take on that responsibility.

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