The National Civil War Museum’s tight spot

This started as a comment for Kevin Levin’s post on the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but it got long so I turned it into a post here. Go to Kevin’s post, Al Mackey’s post, and this PennLive article to review the current controversy over the NCWM, the National Rifle Association, and the City of Harrisburg regarding a NRA grant sponsorship of an exhibit at the museum. You wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a lot of people are not happy with it.

Ok. So many things going on here. Since my class is in the middle of the museum administration, grants, fundraising, taxes, and boards part of the semester, I think they’re about to get some extra reading and a case study for next week.

Some things that caught my eye…

The mayor of Harrisburg, via Al Mackey, is on a vendetta. The grant that went to the museum had originally been intended for the city. But according to the PennLive article, there were pre-existing disputes between the museum and the city over hotel-tax based allocated revenue. (One of my favorite local municipal museums spent a great deal of time working with our general assemblymen to fend off an unfavorable tax status—i.e. fees for guided tours as tax exempt education, or taxed entertainment.) Politicians are variables that are hard to cultivate with a stewardship program and that’s why many government-operated museums practice a “let’s just lay low and avoid their attention” approach.

But there are places were the museum could be more methodical in tracking trends in community dialog. What I mean is…how in the world is this place so tone deaf to the fact that “Harrisburg residents have been marching in the streets against violence and mourning their dead”? How else would you expect an anti-gun violence constituency to respond to a partnership with the NRA?

I certainly understand what might be going on. With the NRA reception, the museum gets an event with earned income. Events at a private non-profit have to produce that. I completely agree with Kevin’s suggestion that “this is an opportunity to welcome concerned citizens into the museum to discuss the meaning of the Civil War in light of recent events and the current racial climate.” But what prospects does Mr. Floyd’s anti-violence coalition have as a source of revenue at a fancy cocktail hour fundraiser? Yeah.

Another of my favorite municipal museums here in North Carolina has a program for community exhibits. They’re small affairs, but the museum has a wall devoted to rotating histories of a neighborhood, a bank, the Rotary Club, and so on. Some community partners can afford the costs. Some can’t and this museum is devoted to not leaving those stories out. So the museum works the scalable fee structure so that the better endowed community partners cover the costs of exhibits by the more strapped partners. Now, I can’t imagine that the NRA would agree to cover the costs for an anti-gun violence event at the Harrisburg museum, but the museum ought to figure out a way to get the later represented.

I’m curious about Wayne Mott’s tone-deafness regarding the labeling of the Quantrill pistol. Yeah, the exhibit is about Civil War era firearms manufacturers, so, it’s not Quantrill’s pistol, its just some handgun that Colt manufactured. At least part of his potential audience brings something to that pistol and the fundamental rule of constructivist/audience-centered practice is that if your audience knows a thing about your artifact, you have to address that head on. Don’t avoid the elephant in the room, and don’t leave obvious questions unanswered. That’s a real good way to leave visitors unsatisfied. (The “anti-pc” crowd will surely claim that Civil War gun manufacturers, or Quantrill’s actions, have nothing to do with Freddie Gray or the removal of CS statues in Baltimore, but that’s a real connection for potential audiences and you have to take it seriously no matter how contemptuous you are of the idea.)

Also, I largely believe the claim that the NRA did not shape content, but when the title of the exhibit is the same as the title of an NRA initiative, I’m inclined to believe that the content has been shaped, intentionally or unintentionally. I actually don’t have a problem with that, it’s the way of the world, but when it puts you at odds with you audience (or your community), you have to work harder on marketing, framing, expectation-building, and most importantly, transparency, so that everyone knows what’s up.

There is a larger thing here—the language of museums as having a celebratory purpose. I read the mayor’s and Mr. Floyd’s words through the lens of political sarcasm, but still, the underlying idea is that if something is in a museum it is being celebrated, honored, and glorified. That’s what people think museums do. It is going to be a lifetime struggle to persuade the public to think of museums as places of critical history (and thereby more trustworthy) and not just as temples with access to unmediated and objective truth. But that’s another post.

Ok, the usual disclaimer—I’ve never been inside the NCWM, but by all accounts it is a fine museum and the staff knows what they are doing. I really feel sorry for them right now. I certainly don’t know any more about this story beyond what is my three sources above, so my observations have limited reach. Would love to hear more from behind the scenes.


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