Concerned Georgian citizens, witnessing the decline in traditional Georgian farming communities throughout the mid twentieth century, founded the Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village (originally the “Agrirama”) in 1976 to preserve local folkways and educate the public about the history of farming in Georgia. In 2010 the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College assumed control administration from the State Government, at which time the name was changed and a greater emphasis was placed upon education.1 The present campus of the Historic Village consists of 26 historic structures, relocated and restored, and a virtual tour is available on the College website. Both the physical and virtual sites promote an idyllic farming past, in which self-sufficient, yet community oriented, families worked their land isolated from external influences of city culture. School children can experience this life first hand all year, while these experiences are limited to peak season for ticketed visitors. The Historic Village primarily educates the public by encouraging them to perform the same tasks as Reconstruction Era farmers.
While the website invites viewers to visit the village (and pay admission), the village invites visitors to become immersed in Georgia’s homespun agricultural past. The website highlights family-centered activities and elements of the past to entice the primary audience, young families, to visit. Upon arrival, patrons must ride a steam engine to access the historic village from the “Country Store” where they purchase tickets. The short train ride literally transports riders from the modern world to the Historic Village. The first stop at the traditional section (1870’s) does not have a formal train station and the visitor must walk across pasture land to the first log cabin. There are two other cabins in this section, which can clearly be seen from one to another with small fields between them. Near the center is the school and the church. There is a feeling that these people were neighbors, and the docents in period dress tell visitors about family meals and trips to church every Sunday.
These docents have absolute control of the information and interpretation communicated to the audience. Although advertised as a self-guided tour, the village contains no written explanations in the form of pamphlets, plaques or labels. The goal of the village is to create the illusion that visitors have been transported to the past and are walking in on an ordinary day. Therefore, artifacts sit mute throughout the rooms. If a docent is absent, patrons can only guess the meaning of what they see. Although the buildings and artifacts supposedly communicate the story of family-centered farm life, the docents are literally and figuratively the only part of the village that have voices. This is almost certainly intentional. The time period, 1870-1910 was probably chosen to avoid the issue of slavery and the Civil War. Nothing in the museum references Black or Native American experiences, although these peoples composed 70% of the Pineland’s population2. Although these issue are especially sensitive in the South, the silence is more jarring than an honest encounter, especially when the only African-American employee is assigned the role of the matron of the tobacco farm. Written text, although disrupting the illusion of time travel, offers a solution to uncomfortable discussions about race.
The progressive section (1890’s) contains a tobacco farmer’s home, log cabin, grist mill, and formal train station. Visitors see successful farmers with livestock and big homes. The artifacts in the progressive homes are often the same as those of the tradition section- quilting racks, pianos (!), and beds in nearly every room. As visitors move from the homes to the mill, they can imagine transporting the farm produce to the mill. At the mill, visitors can volunteer to separate the hull from the meal as the mill actively grinds corn. The industrial complex progresses seamlessly from the mill. The closeness of the saw mill, blacksmith, and commissary implies that in the past these industries really were on top of each other. The docents describe a society in which these industries were ancillary to the villager’s lives, interpreting the past from the farmers’, rather than laborers’ point of view. Likewise, Main Street, where the print shop, feed and seed, mercantile, and drug store are located is presented not as a hub, but as a fun weekend excursion for otherwise industrious farmers.
The 1900’s section of the village seems jarringly out of place. Whereas the other sections of the village merged almost seamlessly into each other, this last piece is noticeably different. The doctor’s home and Masonic lodge are constructed of painted wood siding, as opposed to logs or undressed boards. The interiors contain luxuries, which the other homes and businesses lack. The Tift house, home of the lumber baron Henry Tifton, rests far apart from the entire village. His home contains every luxury and convince of the 1900’s. There is hardly a quilt or needlework in sight. The docent draws connections between Tift and the saw mill, as well as the turpentine still, in the village proper. The home seems out of place with the rest of the campus.
Most visitors view the website before arrive at the village, and therefore website consists primarily of information about the hours of operation and services the museum provides. There is a virtual tour offered under the tab labeled “attractions,” making the museum feel more like an entertaining ride than a learning experience. Visitors to the website are told that by looking through the online tour they will “See what to expect during your visit to the Museum…or see what you are missing by not coming to visit!” The site provides factual information about selected historic buildings and industries, namely those structures, such as the school and church, which function as community centers.
Unlike the physical space, the website is not well designed. While the physical space encourages a single flow of traffic, the website is fragmented. When a visitor follows a link to one of the buildings, she must navigate back to the “attractions” page either through the tab or her browser back button. An improvement would be to provide users the ability to advance from one structure to the next with arrows (like an online gallery). Although a video tour is available, visitors are instructed only to “Click Here” without explanation of what they should expect to find by clicking the link. The video is housed completely outside of the museum pages, but in the College’s video archives, which users may find confusing, as the relationship between the museum and college is not explained well.
In stark contrast with the physical site, where interactivity is the primary means by which visitors learn, there is zero interactivity online. The website might offer something, as this is the major selling point of the historic village. Recipes or “Did you know?” explorations of the structures might serve as virtual interactive activities. While patrons can question and respond to the actors at the village, the website does not even offer a “Contact Us” page. In fact, there is no clear indication who “us” would be. The “Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village” remains in the header of every page, yet the Agricultural College’s website hosts the pages.
Although a fantastic day trip for families, historians would likely be disappointed by both the website and village. The administration seems to be conscious of this, as website content is written in a style easily accessible to typical English speakers and the text offers no scholarly notes, evidence, or bibliography. Neither the website nor village encourage visitors to think historically, but rather receive the idealized representation of the past. While the website and village both claim to be primarily concerned with education, both seem to be more concerned with teaching the mechanics of how people in the past lived, rather than providing rich interpretations or asking any sort of “why” questions. These elements speak to the original intent of the museum and village- to preserve warm memories. Visitors are encouraged to “adventure back in time. Explore a place where the community was tight-knit, where the doors were never locked, where although life close to the earth was not easy, it was good.”3
1. “Welcome to the Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village!” Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. 2012. https://www.abac.edu/museum.
2. Print Shop Historian. Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village. 4 February, 2017.
3. “Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village.” YouTube video, 14:24. Posted by The ABACStallion. 18 July, 2014. http://www.abac.edu/museum/videos