An unsatisfied visitor to the North Carolina Museum of History

When I wrote the other day that, “we’re approaching a time when increasing numbers of our audience are skeptical of the narrow interpretive mission we presently offer,” this is exactly what I was talking about.

Geraldine, author of the Everywhereist blog, visited the North Carolina Museum of History’s The Story of North Carolina exhibit, and didn’t like it. Well, that might be a bit mild. “I was appalled by it.” She writes that, “I am focusing exclusively on slavery in this post because that’s the chapter of the state’s history that the museum focuses extensively upon. It is also a chapter of history that I know enough about to safely say that the museum grossly misrepresents the truth. It tells an apologist narrative, repeatedly making the claims that ‘it wasn’t about slavery’ and that things in North Carolina ‘weren’t that bad.’” The exhibit doesn’t use those exact quotes, but that’s the message Geraldine got.

She focused on a few exhibit elements, including a label on yeoman farmers that muddled distinctions between whites, blacks, and who exactly among them were slaveholders; the word choice on the title label “Federal Occupation”; a video about secession that portrayed North Carolinians as “shocked that Abraham Lincoln had been elected” even after they had not included him on the ballot; and the positioning of cast figures in various places. From these elements and other, unmentioned locations, Geraldine deduces that the NCMOH has whitewashed North Carolina’s connection to slavery.

As usual, I’m drawn to making a series of unrelated observations rather than constructing a narrative response, because things here are all over the place.

First. When you see the term “revisionist,” what you should be reading is I don’t agree with the politics of your interpretation. That’s all it means anymore.

Second, and unrelated to Geraldine’s post, is that I’m reminded of the genealogy of Confederate memory described by Thomas Brown. (What doesn’t remind me of Civil War Canon these days?) The very way we talk about the war, from grieving women to memorialization to tragedy to disarticulation of soldiers from causes derive from social and political contexts of the 1890s through the 1970s, and not the actual history of the war itself. I’m not saying that the NCMOH is peddling a Lost Cause history—it most certainly is not—but the way they, and we, talk about the war is gripped and shaped by a very conservative orthodoxy. And Geraldine noticed.

Third. Evasiveness on North Carolinians’ commitment to slavery is inexcusable, and while the NCMOH doesn’t do so outright, references to regional nuances can appear to make that case. And Geraldine noticed. The slippery language on that yeoman farmer label does contribute to that. The basic problem here is that you have to point out that, historically, North Carolina’s plantation agriculture was not what you think about when you think about Tara, or Louisiana sugar fields—and that makes some kind of larger political difference—without suggesting that this absolves North Carolina of slavery. You have to note that a great deal of common white North Carolinians were truly skeptical of the institution—without suggesting that this fact absolved them from guilt for supporting the slaveholding republic with their lives.

One problem is that the white historical actors in our story here rarely articulated an understanding of the cause of the Confederacy and the cause of the war as singularly and specifically about slavery alone. And when I say that, I am in no way suggesting that their motivation wasn’t about slavery in the end. I think it makes it much worse, because they wanted to defend their religion—shaped into a conservative provincialism by a pro-slavery theology; they wanted to defend their economy—superior to the free market chaos of the free labor north because of un-free labor; they wanted to defend their families—made safe from murder and rapine by the bonds on black people, bonds that Lincoln threatened to loose; they wanted to defend their politics— (allegedly) elevated by the privilege afforded to aristocrats like Hammond and Calhoun. Slavery and white supremacy was so embedded in the assumptions southerners had about defending home and hearth that they didn’t need to talk about it directly. You know, fish don’t see water. Museums do a terrible job of explicating this connection. So, folks like Geraldine don’t see the connection and get pissed. Other folks don’t see the connection and feel let off the hook.

I would think that Geraldine wants to replace a rather conventional history with a polemic. Except, that she’s right. In this day and age, an institution that talks about the Confederate experience needs to be very explicit about the place of slavery in all this. You can do that, and at the same time delve into the nuance of all that above. But Geraldine wants more. She needs to see a prioritization of abuse, dehumanization, rape, tears, and a variety of other horrors of racial slavery in the United States, to the exclusion of other voices. (A needed corrective, you see; even my two paragraphs above are all about explaining the point of view of the white folks on top, the chief subject of every exhibit on the war.) I don’t disagree that this is a thing that conventional history museums should do.

These things are conveyed, if not prioritized, in this exhibit. But Geraldine didn’t notice. And that gets me back to doing exhibits here, and back to my list.

Forth. This rule cannot be restated enough—visitors will rarely receive, or engage in, things the way you intend. The cast figure of the kneeling enslaved woman that Geraldine considered inadequate is part of a grouping of slave, yeoman, and planter physically arranged as “social classes” in such a way as to reinforce the subservience and oppression of black people/slaves. Not a bad device, I think. But Geraldine contrasted the emotionless countenance of the enslaved woman against a cast figure of a grieving Confederate widow that is in a completely different part of the exhibit. Nor did the context of the happy reunited black family in the Reconstruction section make any memorable impression on her. In fact, her critique is rife with overlooked exhibit elements and various decontextualizations. The thing is that we can’t go around chastising audiences for not getting it. (Indeed, tracking studies show that visitors almost never follow the exhibit pathway and usually read less than half the text.)

Fifth. Geraldine brought pre-knowledge to this exhibit. She knew something. She wanted that thing addressed. It was not. She left unsatisfied. Can’t satisfy everyone, I know, but Geraldine’s particular voice and pre-knowledge on slavery and the Civil War—that this is unequivocally the central story and an unsettling one—is only going to grow louder for a variety of reasons that I usually carry on about so won’t repeat here. Ignoring it because you deem her tone undignified or writing it off because she is antagonistic is not an option if you want to stay in this business.

 

 

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