What I Told the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History

This morning I had a pleasant conversation with the executive director of the Danville (Va.) Museum of Fine Arts & History about how to respond to public concerns regarding plans to remove a Confederate flag from the grounds. As you might expect, they have already received some angry emails and phone calls. I am not sure how they came by my name, but I was happy to listen and offer some thoughts. Here is what I shared.

  • Keep the focus on the local community. The museum’s most recent strategic plan, along with its programming, is designed to appeal to as wide a range of local residents as possible.
  • Educate the local community about why there is a need to move the Confederate flag. Be as clear and as open as possible. Bring in a speaker like John Coski, who can educate those interested about why such a move might be desirable given the goals of the museum and the racial/ethnic profile of the community.
  • Emphasize on the website and through other channels that the museum remains committed to interpreting Danville’s history in the Civil War.
  • Reach out to the local chapters of the UDC and SCV to see if there is room to work together. This is their community as well.
  • Understand that protests from individuals and groups outside the community have nothing to do with what is best for the Danville community. They have their own self-serving agendas.
  • Remember that it doesn’t take much to magnify the extent of the outrage against this planned move. The vast majority of people will likely not have a problem with this decision.

This issue should be resolved one way or the other within the next week or two.

39 thoughts on “What I Told the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History

  1. Andrew Raker

    I noticed in the linked article that the flag had only been present since 1994. I’m wondering what others think about how effective of an argument that might be. It won’t change the minds of the flaggers, as can be seen from WLU, but I wonder if that might have any impact on the average person who wouldn’t like the flag being taken down.

    I’m glad the museum has been taking proactive steps to handle PR at this time, since there will continue to be pushback from the usual suspects.

    Reply
    1. Andy Hall

      The flags at VMFA were only put up in 1993. It doesn’t matter to the Flagger crowd that no real Confederate veteran ever saw those flags displayed that way; they want what they want.

      In one article I saw the museum said they were looking to display the flag on limited, special occasions. A good idea to me would be for the seven days every spring on the anniversary of the time Jefferson Davis and the C.S. government were encamped there. That would actually have a significance and connection to the history of the property, so I’m sure the heritage crowd will hate it.

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      1. Andrew Raker

        Thanks for the reminder of the VFMA case, too – totally slipped my mind.

        As I’ve thought more about my comment, I wonder how much of a “movable middle” there even is. They’re not vocal, like the heritage crowd, so it’s hard to know. PR would need to be aimed at them, not at the ones who are the most vocal. The most that any of them would be likely to learn is, as I saw in your comments on this issue on your blog, Andy, what state Danville is in.

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        1. Andy Hall

          I firmly believe that in Danville — as in Richmond, Lexington, and everywhere else — the large majority of the population isn’t engaged one way or another. There are people who feel strongly at either end of the issue, but they’re relative few in numbers.

          I’m not sure that that “middle” is moveable; apathy or indifference is very hard to overcome. I don’t think various tactics by the Flaggers and similar groups actually bring in many true converts; rather, they’re identifying and gaining support from folks who are already in their camp.

          The offending institutions, on the other hand, are having to make their decisions on an entirely different standard, i.e., what’s best for the institution, long-term. Prominent displays of fealty to the Confederacy are problematic in that regard because of gradual shifts in society at large. that’s just reality. In all these cases, the Flaggers have failed to make a convincing argument that retaining those symbols is a positive good for the institution involved — all they’ve got is making a general nuisance of themselves until they get their way. My guess is that the institutions involved get inured to that sort of thing real fast.

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          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            …the large majority of the population isn’t engaged one way or another. There are people who feel strongly at either end of the issue, but they’re relative few in numbers.

            I communicated this as well. Keep the focus on the local community as much as possible.

            Reply
            1. Andy Hall

              Yep. It will be interesting to see if this results in a public hearing. It may well be like the one in 2011 on the proposed ordinance in Lexington, where virtually all the local people who spoke supported the ordinance, and those who opposed it were not actually from Lexington. As Al says, “outside agitators.”

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          2. M.D. Blough

            I wonder if they actually HURT their cause by making the institutions they are pressuring see prominently displaying “the Flag” as a magnet for right-wing nut jobs who might scare away visitors.

            Reply
            1. Andy Hall

              I was thinking more about the general public in my previous comments, but as for the institutions (and their leaders) they’ve been protesting, I think the heritage folks have done themselves active harm. The lease on the chapel at VMFA comes up for renewal next year, and they’re fools if they think the museum is going to extend to them the hand of mutual respect and a willingness to make concessions as a matter of good faith. People just don’t work that way. I would be very surprised indeed if the lease terms next year change anything with respect to the flags on the porch.

              Reply
              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                The lease on the chapel at VMFA comes up for renewal next year, and they’re fools if they think the museum is going to extend to them the hand of mutual respect and a willingness to make concessions as a matter of good faith.

                Yep. There are so many things that could be done to improve the interpretation of the chapel, but as far as I can see the Flaggers have done nothing.

              2. Jimmy Dick

                I think there is going to be a major fit throwing when that lease is up. I think it is safe to say there is no way it gets renewed. I also expect to hear the usual cries of, “We’re gonna sue!” followed by complete inaction and morons waving historically inaccurate flags being laughed at.

              3. Woodrowfan

                “complete inaction “?? Sir, I believe you will see a positive flurry of outraged Facebook posts by the Flaggers. Perhaps even a sternly worded letter to the editor of the local newspaper! Even, dare I suggest it, an angry video on Youtube!

              4. Jimmy Dick

                Woody,
                You are absolutely correct. I should have said a pathetic display of extremely incorrect history showing their lack of historical knowledge in myriad forms.

  2. Billy Bearden

    I can only assume in your chat with Ms Barton that she probably failed to mention that of the Museum Board’s recent “vote’ (of which you linked to the story above) was 3 – 1 in favor. But that the board consists of 15 members, and 9 abstained because they dislike her “new direction” but were too afraid to stand against her aggressive behavior.

    Also, I doubt Ms Barton bothered to mention the 1994 legal agreement between the Heritage Preservation Association and the City, making the flag untouchable.

    I do know that Ms Barton stated on television that she had spoke to 200 people (perhaps you were 1 of her 200) that said they didn’t mind the flag removal, but she didn’t tell the viewers that Danville has 50,000 residents.

    I heard audio from the earliest interview another woman (must have been 1 of the 3 flag removal voters) that she “didn’t think” the flag was “historically accurate” – but of course to follow that logic, the 2 new wings of the Sutherlin house must be removed, since they were not added until the 20th Century.

    No Flagging is needed in this situation, simply because the “Battle of Danville” was lost before the 1st soundbyte was fired, and General Cara Barton played the role of Hood at Franklin.

    Reply
      1. Billy Bearden

        You say it is silliness, yet Virginia Code 15.2-1812 won out over the silliness of Cara Burton and the 10 people that wanted the flag removed (Cara Burton and the other 2 board members, the 2 city council members, and the 5 people who spoke against the flag at 2 separate council meetings)
        Yes, Cara Burton led her anemic forces into slaughter, as did Hood at Franklin.

        Reply
        1. Jimmy Dick

          Fortunately inside the museum the guides can explain the purpose of the confederacy and that the civil war was about slavery. You know, a billboard saying that could be erected right in front of that flag too.

          It doesn’t matter. Thankfully, historians and educators are teaching actual history to students across the country while the lost cause defenders continue to die out. Eventually the lost cause will be a footnote in civil war historiography.

          I also think that Virginia law will be changed so that localities can get rid of monuments that are embarrassing and not reflecting real history.

          Reply
          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            I also think that Virginia law will be changed so that localities can get rid of monuments that are embarrassing and not reflecting real history.

            Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

            Reply
            1. Michael Rodgers

              While monuments should be reviewed from time to time and local input should be sought during such reviews, I don’t see that as the issue here. The issue is that a Confederate flag flying with little or no context doesn’t meet Coski’s law, which requires the display of such flags “only as an unambiguously historical or memorial symbol.” I suggest that they add things around the flying flag to make the display unambiguously historical or memorial. Not a billboard, but you know markers and explanation, you know, some context.

              Reply
  3. chancery

    Andy Hall: ” In all these cases, the Flaggers have failed to make a convincing argument that retaining those symbols is a _positive good_ for the institution involved …”

    I saw what you did there …

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  4. Bob Huddleston

    I wonder if *any* flag was flown there in 1865. How big a presence did Jeff Davis et al really have in Danville for those few days.

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  5. Jason Foster

    “Understand that protests from individuals and groups outside the community have nothing to do with what is best for the Danville community. They have their own self-serving agendas.”

    Kevin, take your own advice and stay out of the Danville community.

    Reply
  6. Michael C Williams

    No the Danville museum came to you not the people of Danville.
    Do “what is best for the Danville community” and let Danville sort out it’s own problems.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      What did I say that would give you any indication that I believe otherwise? If you bothered to read the post you will notice that one thing I said is that many people in the community and beyond closely identify with the flag.

      Reply
    2. Andy Hall

      Do “what is best for the Danville community” and let Danville sort out it’s own problems.

      Unfortunately that didn’t happen. Instead of the community of Danville working through this question one way or another on its own, a true community decision was preempted by by state law. Flag supporters get to keep the display, but not by winning the argument on its own merits.

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  7. Billy Bearden

    Cara Burton obviously ignored your advice on getting the UDC and SCV involved. I was in Danville on Friday April 3rd, and decided to spend the $8 to take the tour of the Sutherland Mansion. My main objective of course was the new Burton Interpretive Flag display.

    Taking the elevator to the 2nd floor, the display is immediately on the left wall. Spelling error “personl” in the 1st plaque. Statements like General Lee surrendered the LAST Confederate army, the rectangle Confederate Battle Flag was created as “the 20th century ‘Southern Cross'” – and that “ALL Battle flags are square”

    I made a full page of notes of the errors and approached a staff member. He was not interested in going with me to physically viewing the errors, nor did he take my concerns serious. I made contact with a female staff worker. She was not interested in the information I was trying to share either, but she did give me a business card so as I could make contact with Cara Burton. I explained that I had sent Cara Burton 3 emails and tried to reach her twice via telephone not too long ago, but she would not reply nor respond.

    That woman is providing horrible information to the public that does not jive with real historical facts, and no one in the employ of the DFA&HM seems to know or care about the nonsense they are pushing on an unsuspecting public.

    Reply

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