Blurred boundaries and the audience of the future

This started as a long essay, but I worked it down to some remarks I offered at the recent Southeastern Museums Conference, and now it’s a blog post.

Encountered this sentiment in a focus group for a museum project.
Encountered this sentiment in a focus group for a museum project.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a text app called Send Me SFMOMA. Text “send me [fill in your blank]” to a number and the museum sends an image of an artwork from their collection that best matches your query.

I texted “send me New Mexico” and they responded with an Ansel Adams photograph, which was pretty nice.

I then texted “send me Civil War,” and they sent an image of Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym’s rendering of the Lorraine Motel from their “Buildings of Disaster” series.

"Lorraine Motel" from Constantine and Lourene Leon Boym's "Buildings of Disaster" Series
“Lorraine Motel” from Constantine and Lourene Leon Boym’s “Buildings of Disaster” Series

Huh. On its face, the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination has little to do with the American Civil War, but someone (or some algorithm more likely) made that connection.

But this is not a surprise, and working in a Civil War museum on projects that are intentionally reaching out to potential new audiences, I keep bumping into this pattern—a narrative that embraces a Civil War topic but doesn’t fit any traditional popular categorization of the war as a political or military event featuring two equal and opposing sides between 1861 and 1865.

The podcast, Uncivil, does this. Their episode, “The Sentence” is set entirely in Seventeenth Century Virginia as it tracks how race and slavery became intertwined. “The Assets” is about slave insurance. Neither episode crosses into the thing we popularly know of as the Civil War—in fact, neither episode even mention that name.

Now, if you are sensing a theme here, you are right.

Both the Lorraine Motel piece and the Uncivil episodes are explicitly about American racial history, but they represent a key inversion of a relationship here: We, as Civil War sites, usually contain the freedom struggle within a traditional Civil War framework by adding in emancipation and USCTs. But in this inverted relationship, the Civil War is a small part of larger narrative arcs that supersede mid-Nineteenth Century national conflict and reunion.

I saw this recently in a conversation my team had with students from Virginia Union University, a Richmond HBCU. They critiqued our current exhibit and—long story short—expressed frustration that the long view of race wasn’t prioritized. They need us to spend more time with things like the enduring meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s paradoxes, inequities in the U.S. Constitution, and the emotional pain of enslavement—all essential to understanding the Civil War, but nothing you’ll encounter, except in a more cursory way, in a museum or battlefield with a Civil War focus.

Carolina Heritage
This is how we currently market our Civil War sites.

This pattern first struck me over the last summer when we brainstormed for contemporary songs with the Civil War as subjects. The usual suspects are apparent—The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Steve Earle’s “Ben McCulloch,” the Decemberists’ “Yankee Bayonet.” You can also see where this is going: all of these come from a very white and very specific music tradition, one that you might say exquisitely overlaps with traditional audiences for Civil War history.

And, full confessionI exist right in the middle of that.

Now, I’ve confessed my complete ignorance of hip hop, but I wracked my brain and Google and couldn’t come up with any particular song from the blues, funk, r&b, or hip hop traditions about the Civil War—with a Civil War story as its central subject. Quite a few, though, invoke the Civil War in the larger freedom struggle. Take Immortal Technique’s “Civil War,” (which is not actually about the Civil War) or Boogie Down Production’s “You Must Learn” in which Harriet Tubman shows up right next to Madame C.J. Walker and Charles Drew.

This is the challenge. We talk about expanded audiences and try to find ways to draw new audiences by enlarging our content. But those potential audiences simply don’t find traction or resonance with the way we traditionally categorize or talk about the Civil War.

Fitting inclusive content into existing frames will have little effect on our existing relationship to the audience of the future. (*but we don’t really know.)

This is a vision and use of American history that comes specifically from an African American tradition. I’m not speaking for that tradition, but I recognize what I see not only in black audiences I talk with, but in the great pool of high-propensity museum goers and young cultural consumers who would never think to cross the threshold of a Civil War site. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s The Presence of the Past helps me understand it.

In their 1997 survey Rosenzweig and Thelen noted distinctive differences between white and black Americans’ use of the past to make meaning today. White people connected to history through stories of family and place and didn’t connect so much through sweeping collective narratives. (So, a Steve/Justin Townes Earle song about a Confederate soldier who might be the listener’s ancestor just works.)

African Americans in their survey did it different. Black people, in Rosenzweig and Thelen’s estimation more readily connected family stories to a historical identity by rooting it all in a long and collective narrative arc. (Thus, “You Must Learn” represents a more recognizable family history.) Those larger narrative arcs often take priority in connecting individuals to historical subjects, and in the process, chronology is compressed.

The understanding of history that Rosenzweig and Thelen described isn’t just counter-narrative and it isn’t just inclusion in a commonly understood past. It smashes the boundaries of what we generally understand to be that commonly understood past and challenges us every time we frame the Civil War as a North South military and political conflict between 1861 and 1865.

Thomas Jefferson’s paradoxes and Martin Luther King’s aspirations have to be readily present in our museum products, and not just as bookends of conventional storytelling.

To talk about the Civil War in a way that makes your museum a welcoming space, you have to not just frame it not only as one part of the freedom struggle, but be ready to leverage your resources and content knowledge to talk about race in America from 1619 to Black Lives Matter.

I suspect that audiences of the future will more often expect this than not.

I, personally, like what this chronological blurring enables (even when it doesn’t follow a freedom struggle narrative). This permission to blur boundaries has enabled and emboldened me to do a couple of things at the museum.

For a recent History Happy Hour I turned a Confederate religious history moment in 1863 into a larger story about white supremacy from 1837 to 1940 and in our own time.

Greenback America is a story of United States money that begins in 1862 and ends in 1913 and the Civil War is critical, but incidental to the main point that money—and the technology of money as it changes—carries great social and political meaning, especially as the technology of money changes around us today.

6G In Battle Array (1)
Is this a Civil War story?

So I have two takeaways.

I want to see more blurred boundaries, not only in chronology and in traditional categorization, but also in disciplinary approaches. I’ve heard Titus Kaphar’s name several times this week—his work on USCTs currently at the National Portrait Gallery would be perfect at any of our sites, and be an exhibit unlike any we usually encounter at Civil War sites. Kara Walker’s art would also be a great intervention.

The second is that all my examples are anecdotal. There are a number of ways that we can understand our audiences in Civil War land. We can think of visitor categories in John Falk terms, but we often find it easier to imagine our audience in racial terms and in political/culture-war ways. Doing so, however, doesn’t really give us real evidence based understandings of who our audience is going to be, and how they will approach our topic. We are in desperate need of a new Rosenzweig and Thelen-type survey of Americans to provide real evidence for us. The audience of the future, after all, has already changed, but if we don’t know how, we’ll always be responding to their parents.

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