The NYT Visits the Museum of the Confederacy
On of my readers, PH, passes along this recent review in the New York Times of the Museum of the Confederacy, and its ongoing effort to chart a new course, away from its founding as a shrine to the Lost Cause, to a more comprehensive, balanced view of the conflict, its origins and its legacy. (Kevin has blogged on it as well.) Edward Rothstein makes a second visit to the MoC, and notes the shifting tenor of the institution’s public exhibitions and programs.
The Museum of the Confederacy embodies the conflict in its very origins; its artifacts were accumulated in the midst of grief. The museum’s first solicitation for donations, in 1892, four years before its opening, is telling: “The glory, the hardships, the heroism of the war were a noble heritage for our children. To keep green such memories and to commemorate such virtues, it is our purpose to gather together and preserve in the Executive Mansion of the Confederacy the sacred relics of those glorious days. We appeal to our sisters throughout the South to help us secure these invaluable mementoes before it’s too late.”
That heritage casts a long shadow over the institution. When I visited in 2008, slavery still seemed an inconsequential part of Southern history. And Southern suffering loomed large.
But changes have been taking place. Several tendentious text panels (in one, Lincoln was portrayed as having manipulated the South into starting the war) have been removed. And gradually, under the presidency of S. Waite Rawls III, the museum, while keeping its name, has been expanding its ambitions, trying to turn its specialization into a strength instead of a burden.
Nonetheless, Rothstein comes away feeling that, while the worst examples of the MoC’s old historical narrative are gone, there’s nothing yet that has taken their place:
The delicacy is strange. There is so much in the exhibition [“The War Comes Home”] that is illuminating about the war. And it isn’t that the Virginia Historical Society is embracing the Lost Cause. Far from it. But the institution is trying to take a path that will least offend those who do. Or is it suggesting with its questions that it would be callous to continue with finger pointing? After all, isn’t one man’s traitor another’s patriot?
The problem, though, is that the Civil War then becomes merely a tragic clash of two sides, each convinced of its virtue and fidelity to national ideals. That is not an embrace of the Lost Cause, but it leaves us a war with no higher cause at all.
Rothstein should be patient, I think. Museums are not shrines; they exist for education and research, and unquestioning hagiography is best left to others. The MoC in particular, with its unsurpassed collection of Civil War artifacts, documents, and images, is far too valuable a resource to give itself over to a fixed story of parochial, navel-gazing victimhood. Like every institution of its type, the Museum of the Confederacy is, and should be, always a work in progress.
Image: “Museum of the Confederacy CEO Waite Rawls announced on Thursday [April 14, 2011] the museum’s plans for interior exhibits. Part of the plan includes bringing the uniform won by Gen. Robert E. Lee, of the Army of Northern Virginia, at the Appomattox surrender in April of 1865 (pictured at left). Also included will be the sword Lee brought to the surrender.” Via Lynchburg, Virginia News & Advance.