That's right, on April 29, 2009 the University of Richmond will host the first of a series of "Signature Conferences" which will take place through 2015. Ed Ayers has organized this first gathering which has the tentative title, "America on the Eve of the Civil War." Rather than a traditional conference setting Ayers is hoping to invite presenters who will play the roles of various characters in Virginia in 1859. The idea would be for those individuals to respond to news on the ground in a way that would highlight the contingency or unknown as to how events might play out. The details have yet to be worked out, but you can see how it neatly fits into Ayers's recent scholarship which attempts to present the history as unfolding within the context of an uncertain future. It also points to his commitment to appeal to a wide range of people. The event may also include a forum where issues of interpretation and memory can be discussed. This event will be followed by a conference at Harper's Ferry on June 25-26.
Virginians should be very proud of the hard work that has already been put into a broad range of events, which hopefully will appeal to a broad spectrum of the state's population. Today's meeting of the Advisory Council to the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission was a bit draining, but well worth the time. In the morning we listened to a series of reports and in the afternoon divided up into smaller groups to discuss a number of issues. Andrew Talkov, who is the Exhibition Coordinator at the Virginia Historical Society updated us with the work his organization is doing to put together two separate exhibits which will tour the state throughout the sesquicentennial. Edward D.C. Campbell, who is in charge of document digitization at the Library of Virginia, gave us an overview on their plans to uncover as many private collections as possible from around the state and have them digitized for research and educational purposes.
The commission still seems to be a bit wary about its position on reenactments. At this point the commission will not endorse or support the organization of reenactments, which was the initial recommendation of James I. Robertson. As many of you know Robertson was a prominent figure during the Centennial celebrations and knows all too well the controversy that was generated as a result of reenactments. I understand the position, but I wonder whether the commission is giving in too quickly. After all, these reenactments are going to bring the most visitors to Virginia and the commission may be losing an opportunity to reach out to an entire segment of the Civil War community. Reenactments are going to take place regardless of whether the commission endorses them or not, but they may run the risk of generating some bad press with certain interest groups if they feel they are being snubbed. I don't know what the solution is, but I wonder whether all options have really been exhausted in trying to find ways of packaging these types of events in a way that steers clear of potential problems.
The other issues that seems to be more of a stumbling block is the question of under what conditions other organizations can use the commission's logo. This is an important question since the goal of the sesquicentennial is commemoration and not celebration and we can all imagine a number of nightmare scenarios. One place where this has come up is in the creation of local sesquicentennial commissions. The state commission is encouraging every county to form their own commission, and at this point 55 out of 134 localities have done so. The issue at hand is whether the state commission will be able to exercise control over the types of events or the make-up of individual commissions. Should there be guidelines in terms of the kinds of people that can serve on a local commission and who on the state commission should have oversight of all of this? What is the line between appropriate and inappropriate events?
This connects to the broader issue of private funding. The most interesting aspect of all of this is the politics of fundraising, which I know nothing about. We all know that the Civil War is a divisive subject so it stands to reason that private businesses may be apprehensive about making donations and having their names attached to various events. One very interesting suggestion was to focus on the fact that private funds would be used to support a wide range of institutions throughout Virginia. This would keep the focus off of trying to package the sesquicentennial around some vaguely defined Whiggish interpretation of American history. I just don't have much patience for Victorian notions of moral progress and American Exceptionalism. I don't mean to impugn the United States, I just don't think that such views make much sense regardless of where they are applied.
In the end, the important point is that Virginia's commission is far in the lead of any other state commission. In fact, the people in charge of the commission spend time consulting with other state's who are working to organize their own commissions. I couldn't be more encouraged by the progress that Virginia's commission has made thus far.