Working group on Civil War sites and museums after Charleston

I co-facilitated a working group at the North Carolina Museums Council on Civil War Museums and Sites After Charleston. Here is the program blurb:

As the American Civil War Sesquicentennial finished in early 2015, a young man who espoused racist beliefs and associating himself with neo-Confederate iconography murdered nine African American members of Charleston’s Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. His actions sparked a nationwide dialog on how we talk about the Civil War, and particularly the legacy of the Confederacy as represented in countless historic sites and memorial landscapes. This discussion happens as larger forces of demographic and financial change threaten the continued existence of small historic sites that face declining visitation and funding. This working group will not rehash debates about the appropriateness of Confederate iconography, but will explore ways that these museums and sites can–beyond the addition of new content–confront difficult history, embrace new audiences, and foster a new sense of social value, contributing to a sustainable future.

We began with a pre-conference online dialog in February that consisted of three prompt questions. Participants from a variety of museums offered their thoughts. Here I’m going to offer the prompts and our summaries of the responses. (I’m not linking to the shared document or mentioning names here because some contributors don’t need their personal opinions conflated with that of their employers.)

Prompt 1: How do you describe the role of your museum or historic site (or museums and historic sites in general) in interpreting historical topics currently considered “difficult”–like slavery, or the Confederacy? What–from museum literature to mission statements–guides you in defining your interpretive practices?

Our summary

First, all agreed that museums and sites have an imperative to tackle difficult topics, and to do so with honesty and transparency. Visitors will know, as J—– F—– noted, when your institution is being evasive. Second, the issue of trust and authority emerged. How do you wade into topics that may upset (or provoke) a visitor without losing their regard for your institution? Also, several commenters noted the importance of “sharing authority” and turning to audiences and the public for guidance, that inclusivity needs to be intentional, and that staff members require additional training to facilitate healthy interactions with visitors.

Prompt 2: How do you view the interpretation of Confederate iconography (or other “controversial” topics) in the context of larger changes in North Carolina’s demographic landscape and in learning environments shaped by social media and digital tools? In what ways do those changing audience profiles, alongside the need to maintain revenue streams, shape interpretive programming?  

Our summary

Several common themes emerged. First, several respondents noted the disjuncture between our interpretive language and that of the rising and changing population. Our apparent inability to find a language with which to “connect” visitors with our meaningful topics and themes will contribute to continued exclusionary practice. Some respondents, particularly J—– D—–, noted the importance, not of educating visitors on our topics, but asking them how they approach our topics. Many noted the underutilized role of social media. Museums’ reticence to fully engage online (beyond marketing efforts) in difficult topics not only abdicates our place on the public square of our time, but also fails to signal that we could be a welcoming space for new, previously marginalized, visitors. As both J—– F—– and J—– S—– noted, trust can be developed when honestly engaging in new and potentially difficult interpretation.

Prompt 3: What would you do to engage new audiences and address difficult topics if you had no constraints? In what ways can audience research, interpretive methods and languages, social media, or other tools help your museum approach contentious subjects?

Our summary

In this final prompt, contributors reinforced that ever-elusive relevance may arise from collaboration and discussion with communities. That may take place in social media, but also in face-to-face interpretation and engagement. More importantly, participants stressed the importance of institutional intentionality in everything from adjusting opening hours to devoting real time and money to train staff to facilitate discussion of difficult topics. “What we are discussing here,” wrote one contributor, “is more than simply engaging new audiences and addressing difficult subjects. What we are proposing is breaking sites and museums out of the old interpretive model and completely reinventing the mission and purpose of historic sites and museums.”

The responses were, of course, more detailed and insightful than these summaries represent. We intended this conversation to question how Confederate history in museums is talked about in the context of larger societal change. It moved far from that and into the general direction of institutional change in museums for two reasons. First, no staff or volunteers from any Civil War museum or site in North Carolina participated. Second, the responses convinced that the issue of how we interpret Confederate things for the visitor of the future is part of the larger matter of the transformation of museums from (solely) centers of history preservation and education to spaces essential to the civic and cultural life of communities. To that end, I think, this is a two-part conversation. We need to critically examine ourselves to identify the existing structures of exclusion, and move forward on organizational culture changes. This internal work will lead to transformations in how we talk about Confederate things to new audiences on the front line of interpretation.

Anyhow, at the conference last Monday, Ina Dixon of the History United program in Danville, Va and Caswell County, N.C. facilitated the conversation. Four discussants offered brief reactions to the conversation and posed new prompt questions for the audience. I liked this method but I think it was problematic for the audience because most of them (for legit reasons) did not follow the online dialog and so did not come into this with the same assumptions that the discussants worked from.

Breakout sessions tackled questions about

  1. What do we really know about our communities and how can we shape our programming to their needs?
  2. How do we build buy-in from boards, volunteers, and staffs, to initiate authentic inclusive practice?
  3. How do we host and structure public dialogues at sites and museums?
  4. How do we write label copy and frame interpretive programs for an audience that is skeptical and detached from Confederate history and traditional interpretive methods?

I’ll post later on my comments and the conversation in that breakout group.

We reconvened the larger group and covered a number of areas of concern that emerged from the breakout groups. First among them is the problem of alienating current audiences who comprise the bulk of existing visitors and donors. We will offend sensibilities by making forthright (and historically sound) claims about the Confederacy and aggressive programming on slavery. Visitation will slow. Donors will stop donating. Visitation and donation are the lifeblood of small museums. (I can’t believe we’re afraid that clearly connecting slavery to the Confederacy, its symbols, and soldiers, and calling the audience to contemplate the implications will torpedo our visitation rates. But that’s because we’re structurally geared toward that particular audience and no other. My larger project here is to critically examine that structure.)

Related is the question about the value of large events that bring in visitor numbers and fee-based revenue. We were thinking about the Fort Fisher and Bentonville sesquicentennial events, the later of which brought in 65,000 visitors in one weekend. (Most small sites have about 15,000 visitors per year.) Reenactments and living histories are interpretive methods that have zero appeal to the visitor/audience that we desperately need to attract, but can a site wean itself from using them and remain financially viable? (The volunteers for these events tend also to be the site’s supporters. They also tend to be the front line interpreters at such programs most likely to equivocate on slavery or attempt to absolve their ancestors of sin.) Some are not convinced this is possible. Others believe that sites can recover from the loss.

So what’s next? We need this to be ongoing work. And we need to get audience involved. So to that end we are exploring ways NCMC can offer resources for training and continued dialog, and brainstorming on ways to begin conversations with a variety of community groups.

This is a rough summary. I hope to keep you updated on progress as this conversation continues.


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