Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
- Jan 7, 2013
- Long Island, NY
Interpreting The Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites edited by Kevin Levin published by Rowman & Littlefield (2017) Hardcover $68.00 Paperback $30.00 Kindle $15.12
Interpreting The Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites edited by Kevin Levin is a collection of short essays by and about the people who use museums, historical sites, and other places to engage the public with the history of the Civil War Era. I may not be in the book’s primary audience, but I still found a lot to be interested in between its electronic covers (I read it on Kindle).
The book is part of the Interpreting History series published by The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). Books in the series “provide expert, in-depth guidance in interpretation for history professionals at museums and historic sites,” according to the AASLH. The books are intended to help practitioners expand their interpretation to be more inclusive of the range of American history. Kevin Levin is a well-known historian focusing on Civil War Memory, in fact that is the name of his heavily trafficked blog. He is also an educator who helps school teachers develop new approaches for classroom engagement with the war and its aftermath.
The essays come from museum professionals as well as academic scholars involved in creating more accurate portrayals of mid-19th Century American history. Christy Coleman of the American Civil War Museum opens the book with a history of the origins of the Museum of the Confederacy as a shrine to the Lost Cause. The decision to place the Lee Monument in Richmond made the old capital of the Confederacy into the Lourdes of Confederate Memory. Four more massive monuments to Confederate heroes went up along Monument Avenue between 1907 and 1929. 100,000 people turned out for the unveiling of the Lee statue and millions have made the pilgrimage to the Confederate Pantheon since then.
In 1896, the Confederate Museum was opened in Richmond and became, writes Coleman, “a beacon to generations of white Southerners intent on preserving the memory and legacy of their ancestors.” The transfer of 327 captured flags from Confederate units in 1905 and 1906 by the U.S. War Department formalized the place of the Confederate Museum as the leading reliquary of the Lost Cause. As long as questions about slavery and Jim Crow could be kept outside of the discussion of the Civil War, the Richmond center could tell its stories of Mighty Stonewall and the Christian Gentleman Robert E. Lee to new generations of Southern whites. But things changed with the challenge posed by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Attendance and support for the Confederate Museum began to decline after the Civil War Centennial and Civil Rights revolution. Coleman writes that “The decision was made to alter the [Confederate Museum’s] focus from being a shrine “for” the Confederacy to a museum “about” the Confederacy.” A new building housing the renamed Museum of the Confederacy was opened in 1976 to coincide with the Bicentennial, and the old amateur staff was replaced by museum professionals.
Visitation revived at the museum and exhibits challenging the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War began to be offered in 1985. An exhibit on slavery in 1991, called “Before Freedom Came,” marked another new departure for the museum. The staff engaged with Richmond’s African American community to create a groundbreaking depiction of human bondage in the Old South. Along the way to teaching history in the place of myth, the museum alienated some of the old families that had financially supported it since the 1880s. At the same time, there was a limit to just how many new visitors an institution with the word “Confederacy” in its title could pick up. Coleman writes that; “While the museum has transformed itself from shrine to education institution, public perception remained a challenge in an increasingly diverse population.” The need for change provoked a revolt by some on the board of directors that resulted in terminations of professional staff and the raising of a Confederate Battle Flag outside of the museum by the Old Guard.
[Due to its length, I am posting this review in four parts. Stay tuned for parts 2, 3 and 4.]