Back in September I responded to the first part of a multi-post essay by Edward Sebesta concerning the Museum of the Confederacy. A few weeks back Sebesta responded on his blog. I admit that characterizing Sebesta’s essay as a “rant” was a poor choice of words, but I maintain that it is a poorly researched essay. The fundamental problem with his essay can be seen in a NYTs review of the museum by Edward Rothstein:
But if there is any success in the reconciliation of regional history and national history, it will not come easily. 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.
Satellite museums are being planned at other Civil War sites in Virginia. The museum’s scholarly resources are being promoted, and nostalgic trappings are being shed. Some of the institution’s tours focus on traditional subjects like Confederate foreign policy, but others examine relationships between free and enslaved blacks in Civil War Richmond, or discuss the lives of servants in the Confederate White House.
Rothstein nails in four paragraphs what Sebesta is no closer to understanding in a 4-part essay and that is that any evaluation of the MOC must be sensitive to its unique history, first as shrine to the Confederacy and more recently as a museum. Admittedly, the line between a shrine and a museum is blurry and what lessons one walks away with will depend on a whole host of factors. What is difficult to dispute, however, is that the MOC has undergone significant changes over the past few decades and that its evolution continues right through the sesquicentennial.
Unfortunately, there is no indication that Sebesta has ever visited the MOC or that he has taken the time to interview some of the people mentioned such as John Coski and Waite Rawls III. I have no doubt that Sebesta would have learned quite a bit by sitting down with the museum staff to learn about how they work to satisfy the expectations of various segments of its broader community. In addition, while Sebesta is fond of quoting his favorite “neo-Confederate” sources he never comes to terms with the fact that the scholarly community has embraced the MOC. The museum’s reflection of recent scholarship can be seen in both the books that they give prizes to as well as the quality of recent exhibits.
As I said in my initial post, a study of the MOC as it relates to public history and historical memory would make for a fascinating dissertation and/or book. However, such a careful study is impossible to undertake when your paramount goal is to uncover “neo-Confederates” at every turn.