You heard that right. The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is taking heat from the mayor and others for a new exhibit on firearms sponsored by the National Rifle Association. While the source of the funding has come under scrutiny, the larger concern is the display of weapons, including William Quantrill’s colt revolver.
I spoke at the museum last September and had a chance to hold this specific weapon with the assistance of Wayne Motts, who is the museum’s director. Wayne and the rest of the staff have done a fabulous job promoting Civil War history in the Harrisburg area under conditions that any public historian can appreciate. The permanent exhibit is well executed and offers a comprehensive overview of the war, Reconstruction and memory.
The museum does not “glorify the Confederacy,” Quantrill or violence of any kind. Such comments from the mayor and others suggest that they have not experienced the museum or they are simply out to destroy it. Is it really such a surprise that a Civil War museum would display weapons from the war? Even more bizarre is the implicit assumption that no weapons were on display before this special exhibit. Of course, they are part of the permanent exhibit.
I am not a fan of the NRA, but I don’t see any problem with accepting funding to display items from the museum’s collection. There is no indication that the NRA is responsible for interpreting the items. In fact, as I noted above, the overall exhibit does an excellent job of dealing with the history of slavery, race and racial violence.
All of this said, I think the museum is missing an opportunity to engage with concerned citizens in the community:
“I don’t think the glorification of the heritage of the Confederacy does anybody any good,” said Keith Bentz, a local activist who held a sign at the protest. “We are supposed to all be brothers and sisters. Let’s act like we’re brothers and sisters…Why constantly remind people of color. It’s just wrong.”
Bentz brought a sign that compared Quantrill to Dylann Roof, who was accused of killing nine churchgoers in Charleston last year. Another protestor’s sign simply said, “An affront to decency.”
Homer Floyd, former longtime leader of the state’s human relations commission, planned the protest Wednesday night to coincide with the opening of a reception at the museum to celebrate the NRA’s outdoor show. Floyd said he thinks Quantrill was a terrorist and that historical items associated with Quantrill should be handled with sensitivity.
Alan Kennedy Shaffer, a local attorney and Harrisburg School Board member, showed up in the bitter temperatures Wednesday night to support the effort. He noted the country had made progress recently by taking down Confederate flags, recognizing they can be hurtful. “I think there needs to be a distinction between gawking at a weapon of hate and exploring the context so we can all learn,” he said.
This is an opportunity to welcome concerned citizens into the museum to discuss the meaning of the Civil War in light of recent events and the current racial climate. I am not suggesting that it would be easy, but it is an opportunity to hold meaningful conversation about this important moment in American history and the ways in which it still shapes our understanding of the present and vice versa.
Where else do these artifacts belong if not in a museum?