I arrived early last Saturday at the National Civil War Museum to walk through some of the exhibit space and to spend some time with my good friend, Wayne Motts, who is also the director of the museum. When I walked in I noticed right away an individual who looked like Edward Sebesta, who as you all know is the self-described “Anti-Neo-Confederate” who traverses the country looking for examples of “banal white nationalism.” In the past I have been found guilty of this offense.
Well, it turned out that I was right. Sebesta not only attended my presentation on the ongoing controversy surrounding Confederate monuments, but wrote up a review. It is quintessential Sebesta.
Overall, he seems to have been quite pleased with my talk, though he chose to nitpick a few points that reflect more my decision not to bore the audience with a prepared text. What I find utterly bizarre is his review of the museum, which hinges almost entirely on the sale of Gone With the Wind and a book on Robert E. Lee, both of which are sold in the gift shop.
I think this photo [GWTW] ably summarized the essential nature of the museum. It was offered in the museum store. Didn’t find videos about slavery and certainly not Django.
Sebesta dismisses the permanent exhibit of NCWM, which includes a new section on Reconstruction with the back of his hand.
I am sure there will be those who will point to the various exhibits and things which acknowledge slavery and African American soldiers, but these are token gestures. To give narratives of the Civil War they had James Robertson Jr., a supporter and endorser of Southern Partisan magazine. The exhibit on Reconstruction was telling with displays talking about how “harsh” policies of “radical Republicans” caused resentment in the South. It is like reading Hodding Carter’s, “The Angry Scar.” The museum management seems to have a curation of the Civil War out of the 1960s but with concessions and accommodations to local criticism which they are getting.
Let me be clear that there is nothing inappropriate about critiquing a history museum’s exhibits. I’ve reviewed plenty of them over the years, but if you are going to do it and expect to be taken seriously you need to show some effort to consider any number of issues.
Funding to update or replace exhibits is not always available. I know for a fact that the director of this museum spends a good deal of time on the road raising money. It is a challenge for many history museums day in and day out. The permanent exhibit does reflect its age, but it actually stands up pretty well. It focuses on the expansion of slavery as the key catalyst for war, the unraveling of slavery and the service of USCTs within a rich military history of the war. One of my favorite sections addresses medical advances and the importance of field hospitals.
Sebesta addresses none of this. It is also striking that Sebesta made no effort to meet with the museum’s director to discuss any of these issues. He apparently enters these settings to find what fits into his narrow and self-serving agenda. [In another post he describes a blue and grey shopping bag from the Gettysburg Foundation as an indication of its white nationalist agenda. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.]
Instead we get an assessment based on the sale of two items. The gift shop at the NCWM is pretty much like all the others. I have written about how what is on sale sometimes conflicts with other aspects of the museum, but I get it. Items on sale fall on a wide spectrum, but the overall goal is to raise additional funds for basic operating costs. Actually, the gift shop includes a nice selection of books that cover just about every aspect of the war.
To describe the museum as pushing a “neo-Confederate” version of history is irresponsible and leads me once again to wonder why anyone takes Edward Sebesta seriously.
Do yourself a favor and stop off at the National Civil War Museum next time you are in the Harrisburg, PA area.