Balancing Interpretation, Celebration, and Entertainment In Public Spaces

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the new Civil War museum in Richmond.  No doubt some of you are getting sick of having to read about it.  The more I think about it, however, the more I am convinced that as we approach the Sesquicentennial our museums and other public spaces will be on the front lines of controversy.  The blogger over at Whig Hill recently commented on my review of the museum and in doing so made some very interesting points.  The reference is contained in a post that discusses the author’s recent trip to a conference for museum curators:

This writer grasped something that museum people frequently overlook—that visitors (stakeholders, really, in this case) arrive with their own sense of historical importance or relevance. I don’t think it’s as maddeningly diverse as the author thinks, but an extremely important reminder to people who create exhibits and take it a step further by caring how well it succeeds with the visitor.

That is, of course, my concern for the new Civil War exhibit at Historic Tredegar. Kevin Levin reviews it here and in the process, mentions the board of heavyweight advisors. Certainly a high-powered intellectual set that contains the best thinkers about the American experience of Civil War. It follows, naturally, that the big narrative is an academically sound, made-by-committee, satisfactory, snooze-fest. (Again, that’s the impression I get from Levin’s impression. I haven’t seen this yet.) The reviewer even stopped to consider how it will appeal to certain visitors; something that may not have occurred to the advisors.

If any branch of history must deal with this dynamic it’s the Civil War.  And the author’s reference to visitors as “stakeholders” is right on target. What I like about the label is the implication that people who visit museums are invested both emotionally and rationally in what they read and view.  I wonder if it is not going too far to suggest that Civil War enthusiasts are driven by a heightened sense of emotion when they visit certain public spaces such as museums and battlefields.

There is no doubt that most Civil War enthusiasts assume a set of assumptions that carry little weight within the academic community.  Just take the “debate” over the cause of secession; while most non-academics continue to push the states’ rights, tariff, fundamental regional differences line of thought there is general agreement among professional historians that slavery was the salient issue driving the national debate one the eve of and especially following Lincoln’s election in 1860. In the case of the ACW Museum, the first video on the cause of secession/war clearly challenges the assumptions of the general public.  Given that many are invested in an interpretation that does not hold much weight among professionals, I wonder to what extent museum staffs should worry about a possible clash between the work of their academic advisors and the assumptions held by the general public.  As anyone knows who follows the endless news items that cover topics related to the Civil War the question of how to think about the Civil War is incredibly contentious.

What I tried to convey in my review of the museum at Tredegar was a deep appreciation and approval of the sophistication of the interpretation.  It is intellectually demanding and it will challenge numerous assumptions held by the general public concerning central themes of the Civil War.  There need not be tension between the scholarly rigor of the advisors and the way that interpretation is conveyed to the public.  After all, the curators and other staff must work with those people who are responsible for delivering that information to the general public in various ways and this can be done in an entertaining manner.  The more I think about it the more I am convinced that museums should challenge their visitors to think in new ways.  It must respect the background of its visitors, but it must not sacrifice the quality of its interpretation for sensitivities that are rooted more in an emotional attachment to the past as opposed to a careful reading of the relevant literature.

One of the things that I am looking forward to following in the plans for the upcoming Sesquicentennial celebrations is the relative importance attached to scholarship, celebration (heritage), and entertainment.  The balance between scholarship and celebration was not easily defined as the state of Civil War historiography was limited in important ways; historians were only beginning to explore topics related to race and slavery and other social/cultural issues.  The general public was even more removed from these discussions; their interests were focused more on remembering a war whose basic outline had not changed since the turn of the twentieth century.  We are clearly in a different place as scholarly studies are much more accessible to the general public.  The availability of these studies and their accessibility has led to tension between heritage groups and academics who they accuse of attacking the South and its “history.”

The ACW Museum has clearly taken a stand on this issue and I encourage it to continue to challenge and develop exhibits that are creative and provide as inclusive an interpretation of the war as possible. On the other hand, the South Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission includes museum directors, archivists as well as the Chairman of the African-American Heritage Association, the President of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the President of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  It will be interesting to see how this commission functions.  How will they handle the inevitable problems between interpretation, celebration, and entertainment?  What will the events planned by this commission look like?

One thought on “Balancing Interpretation, Celebration, and Entertainment In Public Spaces

  1. David Woodbury

    You wrote:”There is no doubt that most Civil War enthusiasts assume a set of assumptions that carry little weight within the academic community. Just take the “debate” over the cause of secession; while most non-academics continue to push the states’ rights, tariff, fundamental regional differences line of thought there is general agreement among professional historians that slavery was the salient issue driving the national debate one the eve of and especially following Lincoln’s election in 1860.”

    Kevin, I think you make too much of this divide between the academic community, and what you imagine are the assumptions of the general public. Or maybe, you’re just referring to a “general public” that’s unlike the one with which I’m familiar. Maybe you’re not referring to the United States at-large, but to the parts of the South with which you have personal experience.

    In fact, in my own experience, I couldn’t disagree more with the statement quoted at top. The overwhelming preponderance of non-academics I know have always embraced the prevailing academic view that slavery was the central, overarching issue at the center of the sectional rift, that it was what made the great Compromises necessary, and that the perceived threat to it — the dimming prospects for expanding slavery westward into the vast territories covering the rest of the continent — directly precipitated secession, which in turn precipitated an inevitable war. The reason most non-academics take that view is that it is the view handed down to us by academics. That was the perspective I was inculcated with as a child in Iowa, and as a college student in Indiana.

    If anything, you might argue that the general public has adopted assumptions that are oversimplifications of what is being pushed by academics. But even these oversimplifications must be said to carry weight with academics, because they are borne out of academic arguments. For example, we might say that Lincoln’s position with respect to emancipating the slaves was more complicated and nuanced than the popular elementary school notion of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator — a single-minded crusader for equality among the races. And yet, the oversimplification folds nicely into academic histories because the root elements are true: Lincoln was opposed to slavery, and did more than any other man to effect emancipation. In the general public I grew up in — and the one I live in today in California — widespread assumptions hold that the Civil War was about slavery, and that Lincoln freed the slaves.

    If you find a disconnect between academia and the general public with respect to secession or root causes, I’d wager it’s a regional issue, and doesn’t apply generally.

    Dave

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