A couple of readers have shared their thoughts on recent reports that officials at the MOC are considering a move to Lexington. It’s impossible to infer anything from the comments of a few people, but I assume that there is a sizable population out there that would like to see the museum move out of Richmond. Let me say that I agree with those people who argue that the city of Lexington would make an ideal home for the museum as it would enjoy easy access off of Rt. 81 and would compliment the other attractions in the area. That is not the issue for me.
I believe that museums are not simply repositories of the past but serve the interests of the communities in which they are located. Their overall responsibility is to preserve the past in a way that allows local communities and visitors to better understand the causal relationship between the present and the past. In short, museums serve to provide a context in which those interested can better understand the way in which current debates often connect with issues or problems long gone. There is no better example of this than the Civil War. We are still dealing with its aftermath and unresolved problems on so many different levels and given its current expansion Richmond is an ideal place to come to terms with the history of the South and the changes that it has gone through over the past few decades. Those changes have raised issues that link to its Civil War past including the display of the Confederate flag and the numerous challenges to the make-up of its public spaces.
The MOC has a vital role to play in providing the space to discuss these and other issues in a meaningful way. It can do this by sharing a sophisticated history of the South and the Confederacy in a place that has been and will continue to be engaged in an emotional debate over the memory of the war and the tough issues of race. And as I pointed out the other day the fact that the museum does not pander to a narrow Lost Cause interpretation is absolutely essential to bringing interested parties together. In my review of the new Civil War museum at Tredegar I mentioned how impressed I was with the structure of the exhibit, including the final section which explored the various legacies of the war. It’s as wonderful space in which I can easily imagine being used in a number of ways to educate the local community. The MOC needs that kind of space.
Everyone is aware of the declining number of visitors to the museum in recent years, but few people have commented on the number of African-American visitors. I don’t have any numbers available, but I would guess (and I suspect that this is true for most Civil War sites) that few black Americans visit in large part because they don’t identify with the issues. How is it that an event that not only ended slavery, but also involved the recruitment of roughly 200,000 black Americans into the Union army does not figure into the collective memory of this nation’s African-American population? Well, those of you who read this blog know the answer to that question. Moving the museum to Lexington will make it more difficult to address the tough questions of the Civil War. It will also place the museum in a location that caters more to those who are tied to heroic images of Lee and Jackson and other Lost Cause themes.
Museums help those in local communities and beyond make sense of time and space. One of the comments to the last post mentioned that “Richmond has grown, by leaps and bounds, into a very ugly and inaccessible city.” We can debate the specifics of this reader’s assessment, but I continue to believe that the MOC can help us to better understand this change in all of its forms.