150th commemoration spotlights Museum of the Confederacy

By: Kristen Green
Richmond Times-Dispatch
March 18, 2012

The commemoration of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary is a welcome gift for the Museum of the Confederacy, bringing rare attention to a Richmond institution whose annual attendance had dropped by half since 1991.

During its moment in the spotlight, the museum has seen a 25 percent uptick in visitation between 2010 and 2011.

Now the museum is hoping to grow attendance even more, capitalizing on the nearly 70,000 visitors who flock to Appomattox each year by opening another museum there at the end of the month, said museum President and CEO S. Waite Rawls. The Museum of the Confederacy’s Appomattox branch is the first of three new satellites that will make up a museum system.

The new site attempts to address one of the Richmond museum’s great challenges — an awkward urban location that is difficult to find, has extremely limited parking and houses only a small portion of its collection.

The original museum will remain at its Clay Street location, dwarfed by the Virginia Commonwealth University medical buildings that have sprouted up around it. Museum officials decided the museum should stay next to the White House of the Confederacy, a national historic landmark built in 1818 and the former home of Jefferson Davis.

And while the challenges of the Richmond location won’t disappear, opening a new location in Appomattox about 90 miles southwest of Richmond will take the museum directly to Civil War tourists. Rawls said that less than 100,000 of Virginia’s 6.5 million Civil War tourists visit Richmond each year.

"When people come here, they mean to be here," said Ernie Price, a ranger for the 1,700-acre Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, which gets visitors from all over the country.

The new Appomattox location, located a mile from the entrance to the park, also will double the number of artifacts the Museum of Confederacy displays from its collection, the nation’s largest of Confederate States of America artifacts, including 550 of 1,300 known Confederate flags from the period. One of Rawls’ pet peeves is that only 10 percent of the collection is on display in Richmond, though the museum lends items to other museums. "If you’re not using the collection, you’re not impacting people," Rawls said.

The sword that Robert E. Lee carried to the surrender in Appomattox will be the centerpiece of the new 11,700-square-foot museum, displayed in a glass case visible at the beginning and end of exhibits.

Another challenge facing the museum is promoting a part of this country’s history that many are not eager to revisit.

"I have never been, and I have no plans to," said King Salim Khalfani, a historian who serves as executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP. "These people are still fighting the Civil War. They’re just not honest about the history and the story."

But Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, disagrees, saying the Museum of the Confederacy provides "a real balance" of the causes and costs of the war.

"By no means are they about rhetoric, about espousing the Lost Cause," said Nyerges, who co-chairs the city’s tourism task force. "Those notions, which certainly were part of the museum’s founding, are long put aside, and they’re looking at history from a very serious angle."

Museum spokesman Sam Craghead said the museum is trying to tell the story of a phase of American history. "If you’re going to learn from history, you have to know everything," he said.

A few years ago, the museum considered a name change but ultimately decided against it, perhaps because of a backlash by Confederacy devotees. Craghead said no other word would have accurately described its collections.

Even advocates of the museum have mixed feelings. Jerry Pugh of Hanover said he wants the museum to be more prominent. "It’s part of the history of this country, and it should be preserved," he said. But he also acknowledged the challenges, saying it’s "politically not correct to talk about the Confederacy."

Convincing Virginians that the museum has a story to tell about the Civil War that extends far beyond the South’s desire to maintain slavery continues to be a hurdle.

Sometimes Rawls doesn’t even try, such as the times a school group cancels plans to visit the museum after a parent complains. He has instead worked to make the museum’s exhibits more inclusive, a special focus at the new museum in Appomattox, where the facility was designed from the ground up.

The museum, for example, worked with a researcher to gather stories of how African-Americans were affected by the war and uncovered stories of people of color serving in the Confederate army, Craghead said. The new $7.4 million facility will include those stories, along with the stories of women, in a prominent wall of 100 faces.

Kenneth Brown, an African-American who acts as a Union army Civil War re-enactor, said he was glad to hear that a wider variety of stories of the war are being included in the Confederacy museum’s exhibits. Brown said the museum will also need to do more to reach out to African-Americans.

"They see the Museum of Confederacy … as glorifying these people like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at the expense of their suppression," Brown said. "Whether it’s accurate or not, that’s how they see it."

Tracy Clary, an officer for the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he’s excited to see the exhibits at the new museum. He said it’s a struggle to find places where the Confederacy belongs.

"It’s certainly not something that fits very snugly in today’s society," Clary said. "That’s why it’s so important to people like myself to keep that history and that heritage alive and not allow it to be forgotten."

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