Museum Label

Object citation from website


Object label: This violin was handed down from slaveholder Elijah Burke to an enslaved man, Jesse Burke. Elijah owned a plantation in Arkansas, Mount Pleasant Plantation and in 1860 before he died, he gave the violin to an enslaved man on his plantation, Jesse. While Jesse was enslaved on the plantation, he played the violin for his owners and their guests as a form of entertainment.

I was very excited to find this object and I would have been excited to find any kind of musical instrument. I think that with my knowledge of slavery and how exclusive some things were to whites, like basic reading and writing, I figured music was one of those things as well. To learn of an enslaved man that was capable of playing such a beautiful instrument was really a wonderful thing to come across. It is difficult to express the beauty behind this object because I do not know what kind of music Mr. Jesse Burke played on this violin or how long he would spend practicing. That is one of the hard things to get past with history like this. You may never know the beautiful details behind such a simple object, and never know the full story. A hard truth to grasp about museums is that they will only give you the hard facts, and maybe not include the emotional segment of some objects. I would have loved to know the genre of music that Jesse Burke played on this violin, to know who inspired him to play, to know why Elijah Burke chose Jesse Burke to give his violin to. Another major question I have after researching this object is – was Elijah Burke related to Jesse Burke? I wish this relationship were explained. The museum states that Elijah was a slaveholder and Jesse was an enslaved man on his plantation, so I would likely conclude they were not related but there is always the possibility of Jesse being the child of a woman that Elijah abused on his plantation. Aside form the museum just purely not knowing this information, another reason to not include it could be that they do not want to take away from the object. It is possible that the museum would like to preserve the identity of the object and that could mean not including more information about the people that were involved with it. Although, I think museum-goers would be much more engaged with the objects if they were given a background that explained some of the mysteries behind the history of this violin.

One thought on “Museum Label

  1. First, what an incredible find! I really enjoyed reading about your object label and additional analysis you provided for this item. I really appreciate your depth of inquiry and interest in this object, and I think it raises more questions than answers– which is a good thing! From this object and the metadata available about it, we know very little about Jesse Burke. He must have been incredibly talented if he was gifted this violin from his enslaver– an exchange that might seem a little surprising. We do not know the circumstances under which Jesse learned how to play the violin or the conditions he was asked or forced to play it for the entertainment of his enslaver’s family/friends. It may have been good intentioned, or perhaps not. But either way, I agree that Jesse must have had a lo for playing music on the violin and it may have been a personal escape to do so.

    Regarding your question about the relationship between Jesse and his enslaver, it was extremely common for enslaved people to take the last name of their enslaver– it reflected the paternalist system of slavery.

    This was a great read! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and critical analysis about this violin!

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