Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Slavery museum in/and Richmond

It happens over the past few months I've been reading a bit about the Civil War, spurred by the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the controversy over President Obama's decision to not speak* at the event memorializing Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, given in November 1863.

(* Yes, I think President Obama's decision to not speak in Gettysburg was a mistake of major proportions.  It would have provided an opportunity to lay out what government means, what "we the people" means, to counter the states rights thrust of the conservatives.  On the other hand, it helps to be highly functioning when it comes to implementation and governance, to support your position, and the Obama Administration has been a failure of late...)

Mostly I've been reading about the history of the confederacy, which is interesting from a counter-factual sense, especially in terms of the return of "states rights" sentiments expressed today and the argument on the part of many conservatives that the states are sovereign ("Obama's Gettysburg," Wall Street Journal) and that US citizen identity as residents and citizens of states is in fact more important than and trumps our identity as citizens of the United States of America.

Part of my interest in the subject is out of the recognition that many of our national arguments are long standing, lasting decades or even centuries.

What is particularly interesting about the historiography of the Civil War from the standpoint of the Confederacy is how so little of this work infuses our museums, discourse, maybe even high school history textbooks, although it's been a long time since I've opened one of those tomes.

Although years ago I mentioned in a blog entry how the historiography of Civil War interpretation hasn't been updated in Petersburg, VA--there the city has a "Department of Museums" and runs certain sites separately from the Petersburg battlefield managed by the National Park Service.  There they still revere the Confederacy, especially the Battle of the Crater and didn't seem to discuss the Siege of Petersburg all that much, other than remarking on how many buildings still present are marked by bullet holes.  One of the visitors centers on I-95 is run by Petersburg and it has some exhibits about the Civil War, which is a pretty good enticement into the city.

Anyway, books like Confederate Nation, The Confederate State of Richmond, Why the South Lost the Civil War (which in turn is a response to the book Why the North Won the Civil War) challenge our traditional beliefs--which are that the South was united to defend slavery, that the South was created on a state's right agenda, that Union victory was inevitable because of superior resources, are challenged by more modern historical interpretation.  (The idea of Union victory being inevitable is an element of a particular brand of pro-Confederate thinking referred to as "The Lost Cause" narrative.)

Why the North Won, published in 1960, focuses on the inevitability of northern victory because of the industrial and financial might and a larger population.  But Confederate Nation argues that the CSA successfully, albeit with a lot of opposition, centralized in order to conduct the war--for the most part the armies never were without supplies, and the country even grew enough food despite the fact that much of the Southern agricultural base was not food, but tobacco and cotton, etc., but was somewhat undone by failures in transportation.

On the other hand, Confederate State of Richmond discusses how there was a lot of opposition to secession in Richmond, which became the capital of the Confederacy (this is discussed in the exhibit on the history of Richmond in the Valentine History Center there).

Why the South Lost focuses on "the will of the people," with a thesis that the South didn't possess a unified identity, and ultimately, despite the ironic successes of the Confederacy, which developed a centralized government, a form of socialize wartime industrial development, and even how Jefferson Davis raised the idea of ending slavery because of a desperate need for more soldiers to conduct the war and the recognition that black soldiers would not fight for the CSA if they were slaves, people were torn about defending slavery and that slavery wasn't so important to their identity that it was worth losing everything for in the continued conduct of the war.  So they didn't, they gave up.

I mention this because the Washington Post reports ("Va. Gov. McDonnell proposes $11 million for a slavery heritage site") and editorializes ("Slavery museum in Richmond would be a potent symbol") about how Gov. McDonnell of Virginia, seeking to burnish his reputation perhaps, is proposing a slavery museum (which would be a type of what is often referred to in the trade as a "museum of conscience") in Richmond.

Myself, I would hesitate given the failure of former Governor Doug Wilder to create a National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the general failure to thrive of the National Underground Railroad Museum, since rebranded as the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with an expanded mission to become more relevant by also addressing contemporary slavery and human trafficking issues--the museum has merged into the local Cincinnati History Museum as financial problems forced serious changes.

Besides the question of financial success--in other words, why is it that "museums of conscience" like the US Holocaust Museum are successful when most of the others are not (for example, apparently the Reginald Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore is in serious financial difficulty regardless of long-standing state-provided financial report, "Reginald Lewis Museum takes action against poor attendance and low funding," Baltimore Business Journal), what kind of historiography will be presented in such a museum?

Will the museum's message be allowed to be modern or will it be subject to the checks on interpretation that can be put into place by politics and politicians?

-- "Unsettling memories: Intervention and controversy over difficult public heritage"
-- International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
-- "Tourists turning from art to 'museums of conscience'," San Francisco Chronicle
-- "Sites of Conscience: new approaches to conflicted memory," Museum International

How about a discussion of the much talked about idea of reparations or even the concept of the Atlantic Studies and slavery (e.g.. Slave Trade in the Atlantic World), why people continue to argue that slavery was benevolent, etc.? There would be a way to discuss many interesting questions, although there would still be the big danger of not many people visiting the museum.

I have to say that the Virginia-created Jamestown Settlement Museum is quite good (I haven't been to the Yorktown Victory Museum, also created by the State of Virginia), so maybe it will be possible for us to be surprised.

On the other hand, given the financial difficulties experienced by the Museum of the Confederacy, also in Richmond ("Civil War center, Confederacy museum join forces," Richmond Times-Dispatch), maybe adding another museum related to the topic isn't such a good idea.  That they need to figure out beforehand how to successfully market their present resources?

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