Where is #museumsrespondtoCharleston?

A Department of Cultural Resources official responded to my letter posted below. I wrote back. I have not heard anything since.

I took the response as boilerplate, probably sent out to a dozen cranks like me. It indicated that DCR energy on the issue of Confederate historical memory is being channeled into the monumental landscape (.pdf) on Union Square in Raleigh. It also included reference to progressive work on inclusive interpretation DCR did in the 1980s and 1990s.

To be fair, DCR has its hands full. The General Assembly is busy making it harder (.pdf) for the Historical Commission to act on monuments while the downward pressure of budget cuts and legislative hostility to government agencies threatens the very existence of many DCR programs. That environment, even when I was employed there, results in a permanent “don’t-rock-the-boat” culture that I certainly understand.

That response—we’re talking about it, and may make some bureaucratic tweaks—is not confined to DCR. My slight efforts to discover how small museums and Civil War sites are responding have turned up very little. Sure, the Internet has been aflame with great public historian commentary and inquiry, but what is Upper Dead Donkey Battlefield State Park doing next Saturday?, is what I’d like to know. Yeah, I’m a liberal arts lefty, so I like talk more than action, too. But am I being naive? Is my Twitter network not that good? Am I looking in the wrong place? I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d love to hear that small museums are wading constructively and imaginatively into this conversation about the Confederate flag.

As I mentioned in my initial letter, this is more than just about flying a flag or stewarding a monument. This is about the future of museums. If our small museums and sites will not be a center of shared authority, meaning-making, and soft power in our rapidly evolving cultural landscape, then they’ll be increasingly irrelevant temples to a dangerous dream.

The narrative of race in America that has emerged between Trayvon Martin’s killing and the Charleston Massacre has been centered on history. (Yes, I’m Columbusing here.) The Charleston shooter made the centrality of Civil War history to his actions explicit and unavoidable. The protestations of #BlackLivesMatter activists before, during, and after that event have centered our sites in this conversation. So for me, it’s not just about how the Confederate flag is interpreted, or the tiresome and unhelpful back-and-forth over monument removal or SCV license plates. It’s about museums’ ability to be present* in this conversation.(*If not influential—because museums need to listen as much as speak here.)

  • Perhaps a site with a Confederate monument could host an instillation created by a #BlackLivesMatter artist.
  • Perhaps a Reconstruction site (yes, we have them, even if they don’t think of themselves that way) can sponsor book groups and discussions on violence, segregation, incarceration, or just growing up African-American in this country today. (Or anything from the #Charlestonsyllabus.)
  • Perhaps a Civil War site can adapt this Front Page Dialog from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience to issues of Civil War memory.
  • Perhaps a local museum can host a dialog based on the National Public Housing Museum’s Telling Belongings program. (I’d change that horrible name, for real!)

Perhaps, logistically, it really is too soon to expect a programmatic response to Charleston. Yet what I’m hearing is that some local Civil War sites are going ahead with planning the Blue-Gray Ball, raking in the receipts of increased Confederate flag sales, and tossing a necessary conversation into bureaucratic sludge. This abdication of a public role in the larger dialog is a signal moment for our museums and sites—and not in a good way.

In addition to engagement in public conversations, our museums need to reflect on the larger dialog regarding the acknowledgement of whiteness and privilege. That means painful introspection about the historical cultural barriers that we intentionally or unintentionally establish just in the act of doing public history. Some Carolyn Finney might be useful here. Ta-Nehisi Coates, especially, right now. Last year this conversation took place as #museumsrespondtoFerguson and resulted, at least, in some appropriately reflective talking points. I am glad that AASLH plans to “convene a discussion” at the annual meeting in September, but here are the results for #museumsrespondtoCharleston right now. I would hope that this conversation gives us pause and graces us with a sense of humility as we go out and interpret discuss the Civil War (and everything since) to with a new public.

Are Civil War museums and small sites going to continue the slide to irrelevancy as demographic changes disadvantages them? Or are they going to take bold, risky, steps to creatively engage with difficult topics that can reasonably effect social good in a community?

So… what is being done that I am missing? What logistical realities am I overlooking? What ideas do you have?

 

 

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