GDG- Southern Civil War Museums
jlawrence at kc.rr.com
Sun Jan 8 16:31:30 CST 2012
Civil War museums evolve to stay relevant
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Inside Louisiana's Civil War Museum, battle flags line
the walls. Uniforms, swords and long-barreled guns fill museum cases beside
homespun knapsacks, dented canteens and tiny framed pictures of wives that
soldiers carried into battle.
In the back, there's a collection devoted to Jefferson Davis, one-time
president of the Confederacy, complete with his top hat and fancy shoes at
the spot where his body once lay in state.
It's all housed in a little red stone building next door to the bigger and
much more heavily visited Ogden Museum of Southern Art and near the National
World War II Museum. Yet 150 years after the Civil War, the little museum
finds itself struggling - like others both in the North and South - to make
changes and stay relevant with new generations.
For some museums, that means more displays on African-Americans or exhibits
on the roles women played as combatants and spies. For others, it means
adding digital maps and electronic displays to attract tech-savvy youth for
whom the war holds no memories. Or it may simply mean adopting a wider, more
holistic approach to the war - without taking sides.
But it's not always easy for museums to update their exhibits because of the
high costs, curators say. And some would-be visitors' dollars are kept away
by the perception that southern Civil War museums are one-sided - or even
"It's a challenge on several fronts, one is getting enough money for it,"
said John Coski, historian and library director at the Museum of the
Confederacy in Richmond, Va. "Most have recognized the need to make the
transition to a more modern perspective, but for some that's a struggle.
Especially in the South, there are still strong feelings about some of these
Louisiana's museum opened in 1891, then called "Confederate Memorial Hall:
The Battle Abbey of the South." The combative name was dropped in the 1960s
and today it's seeking a "more inclusive, broader" perspective, museum
curator Patricia Ricci said. It has been invited to become affiliated with
the Smithsonian Institution, which will further spur the effort to showcase
a more modern interpretation of the war.
"I think we will add some information on the Union effort here," Ricci said.
"And we will probably make some other additions with it. It always comes
down to money, and we never have enough."
Today, the museum has the second largest collection of Confederate artifacts
in the nation. Visitors can view the uniforms of eight Confederate generals
from Louisiana, rare swords and rifles, more than 125 original battle flags
and rare photographs.
Ricci, the museum's curator of 31 years, notes that fewer people have
visited the museum with each decade since the 1950s. But the 150th
anniversary offers hope that a tide of new visitors will arrive. Attendance
in December was up by 800 people over 2010, Ricci said.
The 150th began in April with the commemoration of the first shots fired at
Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. It will end in four years with remembrances
of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in Virginia.
For now, the Confederate Museum draws just a fraction of the visitors who
flock to bigger museums nearby, averaging about 16,000 people a year. That's
down from some 20,000 visitors before Hurricane Katrina devastated New
Orleans in 2005.
The museum's main revenue source is the $7 fee collected from each visitor,
leaving it forever scrambling to make ends meet. Many of the artifacts are
in need of restoration; the building needs a new slate roof and still hasn't
added the handicapped facilities it wants.
"We have to be very frugal," Ricci said. "I look at the World War II museum
which gets millions of visitors and wish we could get just part of that."
Some visitors do stumble upon the museum after visiting the others nearby -
and are surprised by its scope.
"I think it's a very important part of our history," said Rose Adams, 47,
visiting from Dallas. "This is a wonderful display, full of such interesting
things. I just happened on it after going to the World War II museum."
Interest in the Civil War got a huge boost in 1990 with the airing of Ken
Burns' PBS documentary on the war, still the most-watched public television
"One of the interesting things is that the series did in the North was it
really provided a sense of ownership of the Civil War, which had been since
1865 the province of the South," Burns said. "We ceded the interest
generally to the South, which is unusual, because it's usually the winners
who write the history, not the losers."
But he notes museums that may have once been shrines to one side or another
are adapting new kinds of displays exploring the war from new angles.
"I think a lot of that is changing and getting more centered on the war and
not a distorted idea of it," Burns said. "Basically museums have started to
interpret a more holistic look of the war."
In Charleston, The National Park Service has worked to make anniversary
events more hospitable to blacks, offering events featuring Gullah story
tellers and basket weavers, discussions of slavery and programs with
re-enactors portraying black units that fought for the North. Gullah is the
culture of the descendants of slaves who live on the region's sea islands.
Later this year the Charleston Museum mounts an exhibition about Robert
Smalls, the slave who commandeered a Confederate transport vessel and
piloted it past Southern batteries to the blockading Union fleet. He later
served five terms in Congress from South Carolina.
Still, the feeling that southern museums dedicated to the war are racist is
a lingering problem, said President and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy
in Richmond, Va., Waite Rawls.
"It's still one of the greatest challenges Confederate museums face, and we
are all working on it," he said. "Unfortunately the Confederate flag was
used as a symbol of white supremacy in the civil rights era. We got hit with
a double whammy of the 1860s and the 1960s."
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