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Remembering Barbara Doyle, Longtime Historian of the Middleton Place Foundation

Category: Uncategorized

How Do We Know What We Know?

The short answer is: proper research technique. But, like all places that are tasked with maintaining and sharing history, there is a larger story at Middleton Place.

Like most institutions with an academic component, Middleton Place Foundation places strong emphasis on research and scholarship in order to confidently relay the history that we have to share. Middleton Place is a center for learning, first and foremost, and the way in which we learn and present the past allows visitors to trust that we are sharing historical fact with certainty. We also have a vision of creating transformative experiences for our visitors, encouraging them make emotional connections with the past that they may not have made before. Like any site with an educational focus, our methods of scholarship evolve and change based on industry best practices; but they are built on a solid foundation. For Middleton Place Foundation, that groundwork was laid by Barbara Doyle, longtime researcher, historian, and archivist.

It was serendipity that brought Barbara to Middleton Place – born an American citizen in England, moved to the United States as a baby with her mother, and later married to a military man that enabled her to travel the world, somehow Barbara ended up in Charleston, South Carolina and was able to become one of the original volunteers at the National Historic Landmark and at the Edmondston-Alston House. It wasn’t long before she became hired staff, and she set the standards for how Middleton Place would research and educate.

Barbara was the historian who for decades maintained Middleton Place Foundation’s archives that are still held today in the Middleton Place House Museum, and are ever-expanding. She had a hand in everything academic, from writing and editing the Foundation’s quarterly publication The Notebook(which is still being produced by a female historian today – sign up hereto receive your copy!), to adding vital scholarship that informed and contextualized a number of exhibits run in the House Museum, to researching for and co-authoring the Beyond the Fields: Slavery at Middleton Placebook, which has now also been made into an exhibit and a documentary film.

The list of names of the enslaved that crowns the Beyond the Fieldsexhibit was a project spearheaded by Barbara – in her search for the people who were once held in bondage here, when Barbara came across them, she would write the names and as much information as she could find about them onto individual index cards, keeping their records safe in a recipe box. This list did not exist in its entirety in any one place – Barbara and her colleagues spent hours scouring personal papers, business journals and records, account books and deeds, in order to create it. It’s important to note that this list, which is the greatest memorial to the enslaved that Middleton Place currently has, did not exist before Barbara set to work creating it. The amount of work she put into creating that list set the standard for effort that current Middleton Place researchers still offer today.[1]

In addition, Barbara’s research practices were rooted in academic rigor, which became the foundations upon which our current practices build. We have expanded our definition of scholarly research to include not just the written record, but the oral traditions and histories that are passed on, especially in the Gullah/Geechee culture and the other descendants’ cultures from the enslaved communities with whom we are working. These are important academic evolutions that would not have been possible without a strong base.

The museum field, and the academic research associated with it, have been traditionally male-dominated areas of work. There are certainly notable exceptions across the globe, but really the network of female scholars is created much closer to home. We expect that if you ask your local historical society or museum, there is likely a female scholar within their own history that can be credited with work on a collection, exhibits, a particular research topic, or any number of areas of interest that wouldn’t have been addressed without that given woman’s contributions. Here at Middleton Place Foundation, our female trailblazer is Barbara. She inspired so many men and women who remain on staff today, not just to push themselves to more thorough or better executed research and presentation practices, but to look at their research topics from a variety of angles. Today, that allows us to easily center narratives that may not have been previously acknowledged, rather than keep us reworking the same kinds of stories we’ve been telling for years.

When Middleton Place Foundation was founded, we were already fortunate to have a female historian in the lead. Cheves Leland was the original historian for the Foundation and she and Barbara worked together for a time. When Cheves passed the reins to Barbara, a decades-long legacy began. Women’s History as a separate field of study only developed in universities the 1970s; meanwhile, two women in Charleston had already been at the helm of allhistorical research being conducted by Middleton Place Foundation. Traditionally, women who have taken the lead in the museums and historic sites field since the advent of women’s history as a subject, have most often been pigeonholed into only that area of study, or into particular tasking that was paternalistically deemed “women’s work”. In contrast, the pattern of female leadership that was established at Middleton Place Foundation fifty years ago, while not completely unprecedented was, and still is, a rarity in the field (though we are pleased to note that overall female leadership in museums is increasing every year). Today, the historical, archival, and genealogical research, as well as collections care and curation duties at Middleton Place all belong to more women, many of whom had the good fortune to know and to work with Barbara, including Mary Edna Sullivan, Dr. Dottie Stone, Racena Bowen, Diane Parker, Sue Avenel, and many, many more.

Barbara Doyle was, by all accounts a force of nature. Fiercely research-minded, with a love of genealogy that spurred her to begin the Middleton Place Family Tree project in her later years, Barbara was also an avid hunter of sharks’ teeth, ceramic sherds, and other artifacts across property – a practice still lovingly engaged in today by other staff. Indeed, it seems these pieces found her, and not the other way around. She was also a fun-loving woman, who had a photographic memory and a ready smile, and was a proud wife, mother, and grandmother. We are so grateful for her service, for her time and talents, and for the base of academic scholarship that has been so important to our work here. Barbara passed away on March 2, 2015, and as we fondly remember her today and every day at Middleton Place, her work continues to inspire us. When we produce content that we offer with confidence, it is because we work the way that Barbara did – with rigor and dedication to the history, and the hope that we can inspire the next generation of stewards of sites like Middleton Place.

[1]Biographical and professional details included here are courtesy of Dr. Stone and the Summer 2015 edition of The Notebook, which memorialized Barbara’s incredible life, and her service to the Middleton Place Foundation. They also include anecdotal recollections from staffers who knew her.

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