Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

The American Antiquarian Society is onto something

As someone remarked in a comment to an earlier post, one of the hard things about raising money for conservation is the fact that donors want plenty of bang for their bucks.  A new museum wing named after dear old dad gives a donor a real sense of satisfaction.  Artifacts in a locked vault, not so much. 

Donors also need to feel a kind of proprietorship when they give to a worthy cause.  They should be able to point to a specific need they met and say, “This is where my money went.”  A check written to a museum for something vague, like “collections management” or “routine conservation costs,” doesn’t provide that sense of ownership.

This is a real dilemma for those who work in historic preservation.  Many of the most pressing needs are for services that the general public might not notice, but folks with money want to leave their mark on something visible, something with sex appeal.  How, then, do you encourage people to donate to things like collections care?

The Boston 1775 blog mentions a way to do it, in the form of an interesting program at the American Antiquarian Society.  Here’s the deal:

“The Adopt-A-Book Catalog features a variety of items acquired by AAS curators in recent months. All will be offered for ‘adoption.’  That is, you may adopt any item by pledging the stated amount.  In return AAS will permanently record the adopter’s name 1) on a special bookplate attached to each item, and 2) in the AAS online library catalog.”

The genius of this approach is that it visibly ties donors’ contributions to specific items in the collection, giving the donor the same sense of ownership and appreciation as they would get by writing a check for something with more pizzazz.  Old books need TLC; donors want people to see where their money went.  Everybody goes home happy.

In fact, this approach works for many kinds of institutions that have high ongoing costs.  Almost anybody can find an exotic animal they like, even if they’d never think of mailing a check to the local zoo for food and veterinary care.  If people are willing to “adopt” books and zoo animals, then you can find folks who will adopt specific artifacts, manuscripts, and deteriorating monuments.

Those working in preservation, museums, and archives can learn a lesson here.  Don’t solicit money for abstractions; make those abstractions concrete.  Set different levels for the objects under your care, with higher levels of support tied to the most spectacular items.

This isn’t just a fundraising gimmick; it reflects the reality of the situation.  Budget lines aren’t numbers on a page.  They stand for actual, tangible, irreplaceable pieces of history.  When you tell donors that their money ensures the protection of these pieces, you’re telling them the truth.

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Spend those heritage dollars wisely

Not long ago, the Civil War museum where I used to work sent one of their battle flags to a conservation lab.  The red fabric in the canton was frayed and had needed attention for some time, but the museum had to secure the funds first.  A lot of history museums have backlogs of artifacts in need of more than in-house treatment, which they send out in dribs and drabs as donations, grants, and appropriations trickle in.  The conservation and repair of one artifact can run well into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.  Multiply that by thousands of artifacts, and you understand why financial assistance is important. 

That flag is one of those artifacts that always left an impact on visitors.  It belonged to a Confederate cavalry unit from Tennessee—and one of the members of that unit may have been the person who left his blood on it.  The stains are still quite visible.  

I thought about that bloodstained flag when I read this post over at Civil War Memory.  A local SCV group has secured private land and raised nearly $100,000 for a brand-new statue of Gen. Joe Johnston at Bentonville. 

Readers of CWM may recall that the controversial statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber, which the SCV commissioned and then had to trot around in search of someone willing to accept it, had the same price tag.  Remember, these aren’t historic works of art that have come onto the market and need a home, but entirely new sculptures produced for specific purposes.  

Personally, I’m not at all uneasy about monuments to Confederates.  I can understand why public displays of this sort bother some people, but the sight of a Confederate flag doesn’t make me any more uneasy than the national flag of Argentina.  In fact, when I hear discussions about removing or relocating old Confederate monuments, I lose both interest and patience pretty quickly.  

Monuments that are ninety or a hundred years old have historic value in and of themselves.  They’re artifacts in their own right that have become a characteristic aspect of certain American landscapes, and they’re evidence of who we were and what we used to believe about ourselves.  One shouldn’t go around trying to blot out every piece of culture simply because it’s distasteful.  Furthermore, in some cases Civil War veterans themselves placed these monuments, so they provide information about how participants in the war interpreted their own experiences.  Occasionally, they tell us where units were positioned during engagements, or at least where its members thought they were positioned. 

This statue of Joe Johnston in Dalton, GA is an artifact in its own right. The UDC erected it in 1912 at a cost of $6,000. Image from Wikimedia Commons, info from roadsidegeorgia.com.

 Here, though, we’re not talking about statues that have been around for decades and have accrued some intrinsic historical or cultural worth.  We’re talking about brand-new sculptures which cost a great deal of money, and that money has come from the efforts of heritage groups.  

I’m extremely grateful that there are dedicated, generous people out there who are willing to support history with their money and to spend their time persuading other people to do so.  I wish, however, that more of this money could be used to meet existing needs, rather than to create new monuments.  Honoring brave men is a fine thing to do, but commemorative sculpture doesn’t play the prominent role in public memory and civic education that it once did.  What matters now is that we have the raw material of history at hand, and we’re losing it.  The sort of money spent on these statues could go a long way toward helping us preserve it. 

If the SCV is looking for ways to perpetuate the legacy of Confederate soldiers, there is no shortage of opportunities.  The CWPT is trying to raise $150,000 for the site of a remarkable Confederate breakthrough at Franklin, in the face of overwhelming fire and despite devastating losses.  That spot of ground is a far more eloquent testimony to the bravery and prowess of the Confederate soldier than any plaque on a monument could provide. 

The same organization is also trying to raise $75,000 for part of the field at Gettysburg associated with Longstreet’s assault of July 2.  The cost of one of those statues would have secured ground over which southern troops marched during what Longstreet called the “best three hours of fighting” he had ever seen, with funds left over for even more.   

Finally, there’s a need for $12,000,000 for a critical portion of the Fredericksburg battlefield, site of one of Lee’s most decisive victories.  These are just a few handy examples; there are plenty of other endangered sites, along with historic Confederate monuments on battlefields and in graveyards that need the sort of serious maintenance that this sort of money could provide.  

A hundred thousand dollars would renovate a museum gallery.  It would cover the salary of a full-time historic site interpreter for three or four years.  (There is currently no interpretation at Brandywine, due to a loss of state funds.)  It would send a cabinet full of deteriorating uniforms, weapons, flags, portraits, or documents to the conservator.  

Of course, the SCV and other heritage groups do, in fact, support such efforts with their money and time.  I’m sincerely thankful for that.  But I also think that in a tight economy, with governments and institutions slashing budgets for historical causes left and right, it’s important for those who care about history to be especially prudent with their resources. 

That applies not just to Confederate heritage groups, but to those who want to preserve the legacies of Union soldiers, Revolutionary soldiers, abolitionists, Native Americans, or any historic group or individual.  Is the best way to honor their memory a work of art, or ensuring that what’s left of their world is still around for your children and grandchildren to learn from and appreciate? 

One more thing about that flag I mentioned at the beginning of this little tirade.  It used to hang in a display case near the uniform of a young Confederate soldier from Virginia, who died in battle at age eighteen.  The uniform isn’t on exhibit anymore.  It’s in fragile condition, but it might go back on display after some treatment.  Just as soon as there’s enough money to do it.

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Here’s an update

…from Civil War News on the small battlefield near downtown Knoxville that Legacy Parks Foundation was trying to purchase last fall.  We’re another step closer to having a pretty neat historic greenway linking the forts and other sites on the south side of the river, and that’s very good news.  Check out LPF’s website, while you’re at it.

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Development is the gift that keeps on giving

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., that fount of prosperity for local economies besieged by nefarious preservationists, is cutting about a tenth of its Sam’s Club staff by firing member recruiters and outsourcing its in-store product demonstrations. 

On the bright side, the folks getting laid off “are invited to apply” for the outsourced jobs, and “the company will help them find opportunities” at its other locations.  

Those would include locations outside of the community looking forward to having those jobs when the store opened, I suppose.

That’s the thing about chain retail jobs.  They’re liable to just up and take a hike.  We’ll add this to the bulging file of reasons why trading historic ground for retail development might not be such a hot idea, just in case anybody responsible for making those decisions ever asks to see it.

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Digging up one battlefield, tearing up another

Here’s a story that ran on the NBC affiliate out of Knoxville last night.  Archaeologists are excavating the site of Confederate works from the siege of Knoxville and assault on Ft. Sanders.

Here’s another one about the Orange County Board of Supervisors striking a blow for low-wage, dead-end retail jobs; corporate competition for locally-owned businesses; and even more encroachment on Virginia’s historic landscape.  Enjoy that soup, Esau.

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Take a second to help a battlefield

If you’d like a quick, super-easy way to preserve a battlefield, then take a look at this post on Eric Wittenberg’s blog and follow the link there.  All you have to do is type a few words into an online form, and it won’t cost you a dime—but it’ll help keep some important Civil War ground intact.

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The economic cost of non-preservation

In the ongoing controversy over the proposed Wal-Mart at the Wilderness battleground, as in so many similar disputes, it’s easy to get the impression that people who oppose development are standing in the way of the community’s economic well-being.  Historic preservation, we’re told, comes at the expense of jobs and tax revenue.  The implication is that historians hundreds of miles away have no business telling a community that they can’t enjoy these economic benefits.

It’s a compelling argument.  I’m from a small town myself, and I have a strong localist orientation.  My general opinion is that any group of outside interests which attempts to dictate against a community’s best interests should take a long walk off a short pier into shark-infested waters.

Furthermore, I don’t doubt that many opponents of preservation in these situations really are concerned about the community’s economic welfare.  I can’t think of any sane person who would promote bulldozing some historic ground for no other reason than to destroy it.  Of course, the motives of outside corporate and real estate interests who stand to profit personally are another matter.  I’m referring here to people in the community who, naturally enough, want low prices for goods and a bigger tax base to provide revenue for the government services they and their families need.

I also realize that people who live near historic ground didn’t ask to be put in the position of stewardship over it.  A Civil War blogger once said something along the lines of, “It’s not their fault there was a battle in their backyard.”  (It’s worth pointing out, though, that as taxpayers we all have a legitimate economic stake in historic sites maintained by the federal government, besides the equally legitimate cultural stake we all share.)

But these argument from local economic health make a pretty big assumption, which is that the development projects in question would actually economically benefit the communities involved.  And when it comes to the Wilderness Wal-Mart, I’m not at all sure that’s the case. 

Quite the opposite, in fact.  Check out this story about Wal-Mart’s long-term economic impact on local communities, which recently appeared on MSN.  It cites study after study, and what it boils down to is this: Wal-Mart provides a short-term shot in the arm, but in the long run the local economy actually suffers. 

When Wal-Mart moves in, other local retailers have to cut costs or close entirely.  Therefore you can’t simply look at the number of jobs that will be available at the new Wal-Mart and add those to the number of jobs your community already has.  You have to subtract the number of jobs lost to the new chain store in reckoning that store’s overall economic impact. 

And, of course, the “new jobs” will be Wal-Mart’s notoriously low-paying, low-benefit ones, so you may very well end up trading a given number of decent local jobs for less desirable chain-store jobs.

Furthermore, before reckoning the value of the added tax base a new development project will bring to the community, you have to subtract whatever tax breaks the local leaders have promised the project.  How long will it take for the “new” tax revenue to make up this difference before you start seeing an actual gain?

If the Wilderness Wal-Mart will have the same impact as the stores in the similar case studies cited in the news story, then the people who are really promoting the community’s best economic interest are the same ones who support the battlefield’s protection. 

Local politicians who sacrifice long-term economic health and priceless historic ground for a year or two of small, short-term growth are putting themselves in Esau’s position—selling their birthright for one lousy bowl of soup.  What are the local citizens who lose their jobs and businesses, and the Americans who lose part of their common past, supposed to do when that bowl is empty?

(Wartime photo shows part of the Wilderness battlefield, from The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes via Wikimedia Commons)

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Scoping out the Wilderness Wal-Mart location

If you’ve been wondering exactly where the contested Wilderness Wal-Mart location sits in relation to the battlefield, maybe Wikimapia can help.  This satellite view shows the general area of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefields.  The spot Wal-Mart wants is on the upper left corner of the big rectangle in the center that’s marked “Chancellorsville/Wilderness Battlefield Park.”

As you can see from this closer view, the contested area is just a short distance away from Ellwood (Gouverner K. Warren’s headquarters during the Battle of the Wilderness) and the Lacy cemetery (famous as the spot where Stonewall’s amputated arm was buried after his wounding at the Battle Chancellorsville).

I was just looking over all the developments marked in the surrounding area, and holy cow—that’s one suffocated battlefield.  I’d like somebody to explain to me how all that happened to one of the most critically important pieces of ground in American history.

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