It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago the future of the Museum of the Confederacy was in doubt. There was a talk about a name change and even a move away from their location next to the Confederate White House. Now, all eyes are on Appomattox, where the museum will open a new branch next weekend. It is the largest sesquicentennial project to date and is a testament to the vision and talent of the museum staff. I wish I could be there.
Let’s be clear. None of these protests matter because neither the Flaggers nor the SCV offer a vision of their own. They’ve done nothing to reach out to the public with anything approaching a positive plan of how to commemorate and further our understanding of this crucial period in American history. The future of the MOC in Appomattox and even in Richmond has very little to do with these two groups.
Their relative success will be determined by how well they tell the story of the Confederacy and the broader history of the period and their effectiveness in engaging the broader community, especially the schools. This is a wonderful opportunity for the MOC to engage those groups that they have had difficulty connecting with in the Richmond area.
Most reasonable people will not be turned off by this silliness surrounding the display of the Confederate flag; in fact, most people who visit won’t be aware of it at all. Finally, it’s OK to disagree with MOC’s decision, but that is not necessarily a reason not to visit. Go with an open mind and share your thoughts in a constructive way re: the flag or other aspects of the exhibit if you are moved to do so. You are bound to learn something either way. Not everything has to be framed as an all or nothing choice.
As I suggested in my proposal, social media has fundamentally changed the commemorative landscape. Whereas 50 years ago only a few institutions were positioned to shape a national Civil War remembrance the democratization of the web means that all of our voices can now be heard. Most institutions have done a pretty good job of utilizing social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to disseminate information to the public, but what are they doing to engage their audience? Social media is a 2-way street and I am not simply thinking of a Facebook page that allows for readers’ comments.
It should come as no surprise that a National Air and Space Museum exhibit centered around the Enola Gay and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb would cause controversy in the mid-1990s. Many of the veterans of WWII were still alive and the issue itself tugged at how Americans saw themselves as moral leaders on the world stage. Ignoring some of the legitimate concerns with how the event was interpreted by the NASM, it is clear that Americans were simply too close to the event in question to allow for the kind of historical objectivity that the historians, curators, and other professionals hoped to bring to the exhibit. The debate that took place in the halls of the Senate, House of Representatives as well as countless newspapers and magazines provides the perfect case study for what happens when a historical interpretation comes up against a narrative that is rooted in a personal connection to the past that is still very much part of the event itself. We can see this at work in how the events of 9-11 are commemorated as well.
It is interesting that after 150 years many Americans are committed to framing some of the central questions about the Civil War in personal terms. Typically this connection is framed as a defense of an ancestor who fought on one side or another; implied is a belief in some sort of privileged connection to historical truth. I’ve argued in a number of places that our collective understanding has undergone profound shifts in recent years and that we are beginning to take on a more detached stance in regard to the events of the 1860s, but the cries of “heritage violations” can still be heard. While I have some respect for those who take themselves to be deeply rooted in a personal past, the rhetoric is itself sounding more and more anachronistic.
Today I learned that three statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue are now adorned with “street art”, though the extent of the damage looks to be minimal. Apparently, a local artist with a political bent decided to remind Richmond’s residents that the city’s past extends beyond the Confederate heroes that line this prominent street.
On the Stonewall Jackson monument is Gabriel.
“Blacksmith, slave, educated man, Gabriel sought liberty and an end to slavery with a large-scale rebellion in the city of Richmond during the summer of 1800. His plot was exposed and he was hanged along with 24 other slaves.”
On the Jefferson Davis monument is Barbara Johns, whose portrait is in the State Capitol building.
“As a sixteen-year-old in Farmville, VA John’s led a student strike in 1951 to protest racial segregation in her school. The resulting lawsuit became part of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision ending segregation…”
On the J.E.B. Stuart monument are Mildred and Richard Loving.
“Interracial married couple, the Lovings were arrested and convicted in 1959, VA of miscegenation. They took their case to the Supreme Court, which in 1967 ruled in favor of the right for all Americans to have interracial marriages.”
As I’ve stated countless times on this blog, I have no patience for people who deface our public monuments. At one time I may have been sympathetic with this type of alteration, but today there are numerous monuments and historical markers around the city that showcase its rich black past, including the Civil Rights Memorial located on the grounds of the state capital. Like I said, I get it, but it just doesn’t have the same effect.