Rethinking interpretive methods at Civil War museums and sites

[This is an enhanced version of my comments at the NCMC working group.]

At the National Council on Public History conference that I just returned from, one of my students attended a working group on how museums might talk about racialized mass violence in the past and in the present. Her breakout group pondered the value of terms like riot, race riot, massacre, racialized violence, uprising, and insurgency. Each word is subjective and provocative, and each is rigorously defensible in its use. Some in her group argued for the most “neutral,” non-provocative, language while Sonya and others were of the firm opinion that “neutral” language would be transparently avoiding more accurate—if more uncomfortable—descriptions. They argued that visitors of the future (and many visitors in the present) are historically and critically competent enough to recognize when your interpretive language sidesteps historical accuracy.

I am reminded of the Civil War section of a major history museum exhibit that attributes Reconstruction era Klan violence to, quote, “fear”—falling back on a bland, passive, cliché about the source of all terribleness in the world—inadvertently suggesting that we should feel sorry for the Klansmen’s childish insecurities. In reality, post war white supremacists were motivated by a desire to maintain racial dominance through a calculated and determined application of brutal physical violence and murder. Visitors of the future will notice these equivocations and will leave unsatisfied, or even worse, alienated and disengaged.

And it’s not just language in exhibit text. It’s in larger interpretive scopes of exhibits and programs and the ways they avoid obvious connections to visitors’ present lives and the things they know. For instance, when an exhibit on a civil rights leader who campaigned for the Voting Rights Act does not make reference to the present historical transformation in the Civil Rights legal regime that she championed, people will notice, and people will conclude that your history has nothing to say in connection to their lives. Or when the administrations of historic site devoted to prominent men actively discourage discussion of the enslaved people (I’m thinking of two specific instances) you are doing it wrong. Again, when visitors are disengaged, alienated, or unconvinced of the relevance of your history, you have failed.

So the same goes for interpretation at Civil War sites. If we talk about the Confederacy and don’t incorporate an acknowledgement that slavery was the central motivating factor, people, in greater numbers than before, will notice. If we interpret the Confederate battle flag and don’t acknowledge that it was used in service to a slave republic and used later as a symbol of racial violence and resistance to civil rights, people, in greater numbers, will notice. The cumulative effect is that people will find your museum irrelevant. And we’re all worried about relevancy these days, right?

I don’t think the solution to our larger challenges is simply the layering in of new material. What the audience of the future already knows is informed by things like Django Unchained, Mercy Street, and soon, The Free State of Jones. Some of them—largely southern white boys like myself—will have rocked out to Mike Cooley’s satire on the Lost Cause in Surrender Under Protest. All of these representations of the South and the Confederacy are completely detached from any romantic notions or mid-century narratives about the Confederacy and its causes. Many more will have watched Larry Wilmore lay out Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone speech (@4:30), and almost all will be keenly aware of Dylann Roof’s favorite flag. Our museums and sites, in the face of this, are invested in doing military living histories and historical interpretation that distinguishes between the Army of Northern Virginia battle flag and the three National flags and nothing else.

This is a disconnect and this is a problem for museums.

We have to have some critical self-reflection about how we talk about the Civil War. And that leads to my question: in what ways—in our front line interpretive programming—do we change how we talk about the Confederacy to visitors of the future who have the experience of knowing about the Cornerstone Speech, and that the flag was used to prevent the integration of schools, and waved by Dylann Roof before he murdered people in Charleston.


[These are my thoughts that arose from the breakout group that addressed this question.]

Was talking to a friend this morning—a young, hip, white guy; a historian and a museum professional. He doesn’t go to Civil War sites because he thinks he knows what he’s going to see—Confederate reenactors firing guns. He’s not wrong. This public face of Civil War interpretation is how we represent ourselves. The 2014-2015 Carolina Heritage Guide, the self-styled “Official Museums Guide of North Carolina,” has charging Confederate cavalry on the cover. Open it up and on almost one in four pages you will find a Civil War re-enactor, a cannon, fort, or the CSS Neuse. I didn’t look at every page and ad, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t see any promotion of the Sesquicentennial Commission’s pretty good Reconstruction symposium. The occasional image of a Jonkonnu dancer, a Cherokee basket weaver, or Harriet Jacobs and Dale Eearnhardt does not take away from the fact that our tourism industry sells itself on Civil War battlefield fantasies.

My friend also knows that these interpretive methods often elide, in various ways, acknowledgement of the central place of slavery in the Confederate experience. Why would any historically or culturally competent person want to do that?

There is a point of entry problem here. (Certainly not the only problem in re: accessibility.) How does a museum signal to skeptical visitors in bold, up front, language that We will NOT be avoiding the hard truths and hard legacies about the Civil War—You are welcome here. Let’s talk about it. Advertising with Confederate reenactors is a non-starter, and yes, even when your historic site is there because of a battle and your interpretive mission is that battle.

Our interpretive programming needs—across the board—an up front acknowledgement of the central place of slavery in the Confederate experience, and a determined effort to reject any equivocation volunteers or staffs may offer. But here are the problems we need to overcome.

It is more than just copywriting. It is working in, through education and training of staff and volunteers, a deep understanding of the history at stake and the means to tell it. Two pages in a docent manual that offers census-based information on the enslaved people at a site is not enough training. This should involve, ideally, an almost graduate level education in the ways to talk about complexity and connectedness in the documentary record about slavery and the Confederacy. We have got to get past the old clichés—and I’ve heard them at sites—that volunteers fall back on about most Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves… or one I heard about last night… the people here were kind to their black folk, it’s those people over there who gave everyone a bad name. Even better would be an authentic investment in anti-racism training and learning how to see outside of a white lens.

That training has to include ways to overcome the complexity in the historical record. What I mean is that if we are doing programming chiefly about the military and the soldiers and you want to emphasize that soldiers fought for slavery you have a problem. I can’t think of a single man who wrote a letter upon enlisting that said, I joined up to fight for slavery. We know he did but we have to describe, in ways that are rooted in evidence and stories, that he did. Here is the problem—people (well, white people) have a range of built in evasions. My great granddaddy didn’t own slaves, so there. Most Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves, so there. Well, slavery was an economic thing and that’s detached from the morality of their position*, so they’re not bad guys. We have to develop ways to meet those expectations and upturn them. I would tell a visitor that you don’t usually see obvious direct connections or the specific language about slavery but that doesn’t mean slavery isn’t a part of it. In fact, the whole of southern society—from religion to domesticity to culture to political theory to nationalist visions was so shaped by and implicated in slavery that there is no question about it here at this site.

 (*This is a particularly modern way of seeing moral economies, and not a mid-nineteenth century way of doing it. Also, Mike Cooley got this figured out.)

The logistical challenge here is baking that into advertisements, program marketing, guided tours, fundraising announcements, exhibit texts, re-enactments, Christmas open houses, and etc., etc.

To that end, museum administration has to take time to make certain that front line staff and volunteers don’t avoid the conversation. This is one of those structural problems. We bring in living historians for a weekend because they are willing, don’t cost anything beyond the price of some hay bales and firewood, and generally know how to do a program. I’ve been to many places where the staff only concerns itself with the logistics of tours but never with what the volunteers will actually say. Further, at usually understaffed sites, the staff person on duty can’t even observe or offer oversight because they have to man the front desk.

This type of living history programming as the main point of entry is complicated in general. It is not an illegitimate form of interpretation and should continue. But two things. First, how do you incorporate that signaling into a gun talk and drill demonstration? It’s certainly bad practice to make statements that are non-sequiters (are they?) or have the appearance of dogmatism. We want to say that the soldiers we are portraying unequivocally fought to preserve slavery. Now… let me tell you about this Richmond Rifle Musket. I guess, but perhaps if you have a new audience member in front of you at that point, that signal has already happened. Second, we need to de-prioritize the Confederate military experience at most sites. There is no reason to have an artillery unit doing a firing demonstration in front of the Henderson County Courthouse or Bost’s Grist Mill. Sites across the board need to invest heavily in living history events that examine the experience of dissenters, deserters, deprivation, white women begging work, black women slipping to freedom, black men impressed into fort-building service. This isn’t just layering in new interpretation—it is a wholesale revisioning of the Confederate experience. (And you can still boom boom at those events, because visitors love the boom boom.)

Ok. Doing this isn’t going to be a thing that happens when a progressive site manager takes over and starts a new program. This is change in the DNA of small sites and museums. It means institutional commitment to audience research, frequent critical self-reflections, relationship building with new audiences, support group buy-in, a revisioning of interpretive goals and methods, staff competency training, a new relationship with a dedicated volunteer corps, an aversion to complacency, finding ways to sell the importance of your site to unexpected audiences, and a determination that the way we talk about the Civil War ten years from now will be radically different from the way we talk about it now.

Yeah. I know.


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