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Civil War Museums Once Dedicated to Confederacy Adapt and Expand Missions
Academics say how the past is remembered constantly evolves; Confederate preservation groups decry changes
ATLANTA—When the Confederate Museum opened in Richmond, Va., in 1896, it was chartered to honor those who fought for the rebel cause and spent more than a century building a vast collection of historical artifacts from the secessionist movement.
Four years ago, the museum dropped the Confederacy from its name, and became simply the American Civil War Museum.
Its leaders say the decision—as part of a merger with a smaller museum—was vital to its future. The change also punctuated its evolution from solely presenting Confederate-themed exhibits to exhibiting a broader look at the four-year conflict that caused the deaths of at least 620,000 soldiers fighting on both sides.
“History museums need to view history with a high level of subjectivity and dispassion,” said S. Waite Rawls III, president of the American Civil War Museum Foundation. “It was increasingly difficult to do that because people assumed we would simply take the Confederate side. Its very name was in the way.”
The name change was costly. After the merger and adopting its new moniker, donor numbers dropped 40%. Mr. Rawls said the museum now relies on larger donations from fewer benefactors for its $3.6 million operating budget.
In the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, the rapid removal of memorials to the Confederacy has renewed objections from those who want public memorials to the “Lost Cause” to remain. They argue history is being rewritten, but academics and curators say how the past is remembered constantly evolves.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, the leading heritage group for descendants of those who fought for the South, has a different view. The group is so frustrated by what it sees as a dwindling of institutions presenting Confederate views on the war that it is spending at least $4.5 million to build a private National Confederate Museum in Tennessee, said Executive Director Mike Landree.
The planned 18,500 square-foot museum will rise next to Elm Springs, an 1837 Greek Revival style mansion that is home to the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ national headquarters just outside Columbia, Tenn.
“There are very few Civil War museums that take the Confederate side,” Mr. Landree said. “The majority of them walk on eggshells.”
The best known battlefield from the war, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, is standing firm on keeping the more than 1,325 monuments, markers, and plaques it has that commemorate those who fought and died—whether Union or Confederate.
The National Park Service, which manages the site, said it is “committed to safeguarding these unique and site-specific memorials in perpetuity, while simultaneously interpreting holistically and objectively the actions, motivations, and causes of the soldiers and states they commemorate.”
In the 1950s and 1960s—before, during and after the Civil War’s centennial, and as the nation struggled to end segregation—rebel museums and attractions had a heyday, and using the term Confederate and displaying the battle flag was often part of a sales pitch.
Public interest has shifted from a focus on battles and generals, to an interest in slavery and the role it played in starting the conflict, say experts like Christy Coleman, the American Civil War Museum’s chief executive. That has forced change at historic sites that focused more on military aspects of the Confederacy, giving less attention to slavery.
Take Confederama, a tourist attraction that recounted the battles around Chattanooga with model soldiers and illuminated maps, proudly displaying battle flags at its entrance from its opening in 1957. Under new ownership in a new location, it now operates as “The Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map & Museum.”
The former Confederate Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga., changed its name in 2001 to the National Civil War Naval Museum because it realized it had to expand its scope, said Executive Director Holly Wait. The museum, which used to focus on Confederate warships, has added replicas of federal ships and other exhibits, she said.
“You just can’t talk about one side; that just don’t make sense,” she said.
Steve Sylvia, publisher of North South Trader’s Civil War, a memorabilia magazine, who talks often with museum staff across the South, said many places are shifting names and presentation “in an effort to appear less partisan, a little more user-friendly to the general public.”
One of the greatest transformations in recent years was at the former Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. At first the museum was called the Confederate Museum, then in the 1970s it was renamed the Museum of the Confederacy. Today, after a merger, it is the American Civil War Museum.
Beginning in the 1960s, the museum—which had served as a shrine of sorts to the Confederate cause—worked to establish a less partisan approach to the war and in the 1990s it added an exhibit on slavery and its role in the conflict.
Its name was a perpetual problem—because people assumed the museum would take the side of the Confederacy, said Mr. Rawls. Many longtime supporters wanted little or no change to the museum, including its name, while public pressure mounted to broaden the facility’s focus.
When the museum announced in 2014 it was merging to with the smaller American Civil War Center, also in Richmond, it hired Edelman, a public relations firm, to help with finding a new name. And many older museum members objected to the change, said Mr. Rawls.
“Public perception was not swayed to the degree that we would have wanted,” he said.
Ms. Coleman said the museum is pushing through. The museum has sold the building that once housed the main Confederate collection, and it is building a larger facility. It is offering new programs geared toward broadening its scope, including a symposium this February called “Lightning Rods for Controversy: Civil War Monuments Past, Present, & Future.”
Ms. Coleman said people who didn’t want the name changed remain displeased with the new entity, but the institution, if it is to be useful to newer generations, had to change.
“New generations ask new questions,” she said. “That re-examination can’t help but broaden the narrative.”
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