The story you want to cover vs. the artifacts you have

Glenn David Brasher paid a visit to the newly opened American Civil War Museum in Richmond.  His review is mostly positive, with a notable caveat:

But here is the main problem: the museum is making great effort to tell a more inclusive and diverse narrative of the war, and the written interpretation does so. But the artifacts they have now are just not yet helping them tell that story.

Yes, you won’t find many Civil War museums with an audio and visual presentation telling the story of an enslaved girl that was brutally whipped for allegedly poisoning her owner, or that displays slave shackles, or that interprets the post-war years by featuring a Reconstruction era KKK hood and garment.

The African American story, as well as the Union story, are both featured throughout the exhibits. There is also homefront and gendered history, but with few exceptions (like the ones just mentioned) the artifacts packed behind the glass cases are overwhelmingly the treasures from the old Museum of the Confederacy.

The battles themselves get shunted away to high tech electronic video boards that visitors can interact with, which is fine, I’d rather see visitors get out to the battlefields themselves if that is what they are looking for. But theoretically that means the museum should be focused on social and cultural history, and most of the interpretation is, but yet the most attention-grabbing relics are largely battle-related accouterment from southern soldiers and officers.

I assume this dissonance between narrative and artifacts is due to the nature of the ACWM’s collection, much of which probably consists of militaria from the Museum of the Confederacy.  When an institution’s collection has been accumulating for decades, it takes time for the acquisitions to catch up with changes in academic or interpretive trends.

We’re actually wrestling with similar dilemmas at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.  We’re getting ready to break ground on our big expansion and renovation project, which will in turn enable us to make further changes to our permanent galleries.  The biggest of these will be a new exhibit on Lincoln’s presidency.  One of the themes we feel compelled to explore in this exhibit is the transformative nature of that presidency—how Lincoln’s use of presidential power changed the office, the nature of the Civil War, and the nation.

Like most museum collections, ours has its particular strengths and weaknesses, and not all of our strengths play to the content we want to include in the new exhibit.  For example, we’ve got a lot of great artifacts from, say, the election of 1860 and Lincoln’s funeral, but precious little we could use to trace Lincoln’s evolving position on emancipation from spring 1861 to summer 1862.  (I mean, we’ve got a ton of popular prints and cartoons illustrating American responses to the Emancipation Proclamation, but not much that shows Lincoln’s internal reasoning for changing a war for the Union as it was into a war for a new birth of freedom.)

Of course, we’ve got ideas to meet these challenges.  After all, figuring out creative ways to convey historical information through exhibits is part of the job.  But when we finally raise the curtain on our new permanent exhibit, there will inevitably be an imbalance in the number of artifacts per narrative section.

It’s a bit frustrating, since building narratives out of objects is what museums do—or at least it’s the thing they do that other for of communication don’t.  But this is a dilemma that I think museums professionals are going to deal with more and more.  Expectations for more well-rounded and inclusive narratives will continue to grow, and older institutions will continue to transform from showplaces for relics into places that more fully reflect the breadth of their respective disciplines.

Lincoln-Douglas debate section of the Kincaid Gallery, Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

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