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Monticello hires new president

After 5 1/2 months under an interim leader, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit group that owns and operates the Founding Father’s Monticello estate, has announced a new president.

She is Jane Kamensky, a history professor, library director and an award-winning author currently based at Harvard University.

The 60-year-old Kamensky said she’s excited to arrive in time for the 250th birthday of the country that Jefferson helped found.

“We’re all focused on 2026 for conversation nationally and internationally about American democracy,” Kamensky told The Daily Progress. “Not only to tell the story of Jefferson as a founding figure but to think about Jefferson paradoxes and Jeffersonian ideals in the world of the 2020s.”

Currently teaching Revolutionary history at Harvard, Kamensky will take office in January. She will succeed architectural historian Gardiner Hallock, who has been serving as the interim president after the April 30 departure of Leslie Greene Bowman.

During her 15-year tenure, Bowman oversaw several major changes including the opening of a new visitor center and the opening of the residence’s upstairs — long closed due to the building’s narrow staircases. Additionally, Bowman oversaw the restoration and reconstruction of several structures around Mulberry Row, the center of artisanal work for many of the enslaved people at Monticello. And she also presided over the opening of a permanent exhibit depicting the ground-level residence of Sally Hemings, the enslaved mixed-race woman inextricably linked by travel and children to the third president. Hemings was “given her time,” a sort of unofficial emancipation, after Jefferson’s death and died a free woman in Charlottesville.

“I hope to continue the excellent work Monticello has done in interpreting slavery,” said Kamensky.

Open to the public in 1924, Monticello operated for its first decades solely as an homage to the man who founded the University of Virginia and wrote both the Declaration of Independence and the precursor to the First Amendment, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. In recent years, however, Monticello’s leaders have directed investments into archaeology, oral history and curation at the UNESCO World Heritage Site to highlight, question and investigate Jefferson the slaveholder, a man who owned roughly 600 human beings during his lifetime.

Continuing to elevate their stories will be key, said the new director, an effort made easier she said because Monticello already has a 30-year track record.

Kamensky also has a track record of her own in elevating voices. As the director of the Schlesinger Library, a special collection on the history of women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, she has overseen the collection of 40 million tweets from the #MeToo movement.

“One of the things that led me to throw my hat in the ring for the Monticello job was thinking how exciting document-based education has been for me as an instructor,” she said.

Kamensky doesn’t just collect documents. She turns them into narratives, and her recent books include a biography of a renowned painter, a tale of 18th-century financial trickery and an exploration of the curtailment of free speech in colonial America.

“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Kamensky, who shares our belief that Monticello plays a pivotal role in illuminating the enduring ideals and contributions of Thomas Jefferson and telling the stories of those who built and worked at this incredible World Heritage Site,” Tobias Dengel, the chair of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation board, said in a statement announcing Kamensky’s hiring.

Kamensky’s books have a knack for hauling in awards.

Her most recent, “A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley,” won at least three, including the James Bradford Biography Prize of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.

Her 2008 book, “The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse,” was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize. In 1997, she wrote “Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England.” She also co-edited the “Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution.” And her upcoming book, “Candida Royalle and the Sexual Revolution: A History from Below,” will be published by W. W. Norton.

Asked if she has a favorite part of Monticello, Kamensky did not hesitate to answer.

“The entrance hall with all its strangeness,” she replied. “It immediately plunges the visitor into an almost illegible past. It’s a concatenation of objects from different native cultures with little bits of blobs of European science and mapmaking.”

She called the entrance hall a productively disorienting experience and suggested that Jefferson wanted it that way.

“You walk into his cabinet of curiosities, and you’re taken out of ordinary life,” she said.

Kamensky said she will likely relish the way that what happens up on the mountaintop today gets scrutinized via “hard conversations,” particularly in the lively political landscape of Virginia.

“I told the search the search committee,” she said, “that I wanted to spend some season of my career living in the actual United States instead of living in this academic bubble.”


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