Bathroom bills and the future of Civil War history

My Google alerts is set to receive news items that include “North Carolina” and “Confederate flag.” It’s been active lately, not because CS flags have been in the news, but because of H.B. 2, the recent legislation that restricted people to bathrooms of their birth gender, limited the rights of people to sue for discrimination in state courts, and prevented municipalities from establishing minimum wage rates. As corporations rescind agreements to bring business and jobs to North Carolina, some organizations are gearing up for boycotts. The NBA will likely withdraw its all-star game from Charlotte and the NCAA and even the ACC are considering relocating events away from North Carolina.

What is the connection to Confederate flags? To reporters and commentators these plans call to mind NAACP led boycotts of South Carolina because of the Confederate flag on the capitol in the early 2000s, and that’s why my Google alert feed is popping. Confederate stuff is classed in the same category as socially regressive laws toward LGBT people. Go way beyond academics and museum professionals… go past our traditional audiences… that’s how many people currently accesses the Civil War and Confederate subjects. That’s the starting point for the audiences we don’t have.

I read the introductory essay, “The Future of Civil War History,” by James J. Broomall, Peter S. Carmichael, and Jill Ogline Titus, in the latest Civil War History, based on a 2013 Civil War Institute conference at Gettysburg College. It is a good assessment of the challenges and opportunities offered by interdisciplinary collaboration, “war-and-society” interpretive goals, and the occasional participatory method. I particularly like the acknowledgement that broadening audiences will inevitably mean the invitation of disagreement, something that smaller historical institutions reflexively shrink from. The authors root the larger mission of museum and site education in the imperative to promulgate new academic interpretations, excite the “the democratic and civic potential of historical thinking,” and to do so using the power of place and story. It is traditional interpretation updated and enhanced. I like it.

In my dream world, this is how it works. I speak with audiences about historical events at a particular place and the process produces an increased recognition of complexity in history and appreciation for alternative points of view that visitors will then apply to people and issues in their own lives.

Though optimistic about the success of sesquicentennial interpretation and reach, I wonder if the authors are not worried enough about financial and demographic realities facing museums and sites today. History museums, in particular, have not recovered from the 2008 meltdown (and subsequent sequestration for federal museums) as funding and staff levels remain obliterated. Further, the existing audience pool is decreasing. These realities make the search for broader reach among new and non-traditional audiences an urgent priority. The conservatism of the present approach represented in this essay is apparent. As some museums enhance relevancy for new and cosmopolitan audiences by explicit connection of historical topics to contemporary issues, some participants in the Gettysburg symposium “shared problematic examples of how the emphasis on stressing the past’s connection to the present can result in oversimplification and reductionism.” (129)

That is a risk we have to take. Destabilizing the disciplinary tenets of our profession might be a sign of healthy, inclusive, “dialog” with new audiences that many museum studies scholars call for. And I don’t think it represents a slippery slope into bad history (the apparent subtext of the observation). Take, for instance, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, both of which produce excellent scholarship and collections based history programming while prioritizing space in their institutional missions to connect audiences with contemporary issues of genocide and slavery. (What does the Civil War museum version of this look like?) A wide swath of non-traditional audiences connect Confederate stuff to issues in their personal lives—from being intimidated by a flag-wielding thugs to not being allowed to use the bathroom of one’s choice. Where the authors begrudgingly chronicle tour guides’ capitulation to many visitors’ desire to walk in ancestors’ footsteps, these alternative connections—just as historically relevant—are condemned (by the commenters, not the authors), as “reductive.” We will not reach new audiences if we cannot get past this.

Since the late 1990s, museum professionals—chiefly in Great Britain—have debated the application of “contact zone theory” in museum spaces. Contact zone theory posits, according to Ed Rodley, that the museum become “a space where different cultures come into contact (and conflict), where competing dialogues are heard, and reciprocity replaces one way transmission and translation.” The key, I think, is in what is meant by reciprocity. It means that museums should approach the handling and use of artifacts (or places) in non-traditional ways (e.g.—not as anthropological objects). It means museums positioning themselves to say things that would probably go unsaid, or largely assumed, when addressing traditional and existing audiences (in re: plantation sites, saying up front that slavery was the worst before being defensively introducing an ambivalent slaveowner.)

As the essay suggests, we’re pretty good at introducing new academic interpretation and employing up-to-date methods with existing audiences. But I’m worried that the vast non-traditional audiences that we will need to remain sustainable represent a “different culture” that we’re not prepared to talk with. Is layering in new social history good enough? I’m pessimistic. (Maybe I’ll be proven wrong when I actually read the essays in the edition. If so, I’ll let you know.)

I love their final example. “The current academic trend to internationalize the study of the Civil War will offer new opportunities to share ideas and teaching techniques. Accessible approaches are desperately needed if general audiences are to grasp how the preservation of the United States as a liberal democracy during the Civil War era was part of a global movement of national consolidation of republican governments in the late nineteenth century.” (129-130) As an academic, these sorts of new interpretive approaches excite me. As an educator, they’re great ways to show that history is a continuum and we have a place in it. They’re what keep me interested in the Civil War at all. I crave the opportunity to tell unsuspecting people about the connections between the US, the CS, and Giuseppe Mazzini’s Italy. It will be an “a-ha!” moment for those primed to hear it. And I suspect our current audiences will be ready for it. The authors are concerned about the problem of presenting globalized history with place-based methods. That’s valid. I’m more concerned with a problem the authors do not ask: how does this topic meet the need of contemporary dialogs about the Civil War among non-traditional audiences whose point of entry are monument removal debates and bathroom bills? Why is this interpretive direction relevant to those conversations? Where does meaning and relevancy reside for those having them? What is the reciprocity the museum or site are extending in initiating this dialog with varieties of potential audiences? How do we reshape our own pedagogical expectations, outcome goals, and the way we tell these stories, to satisfy those public needs to be affirmed or challenged on a Civil War topic? What institutional processes and interpretive techniques do we employ to engage with this conversation?

Altogether, I’m on the same page as the authors. But I think that a critical self-examination of the exclusionary practices that may be embedded in the very real successes of the sesquicentennial years is necessary if we want to sustain and grow our audiences.

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