Museums, History, Politics, and “Heritage”

You would think from all we’ve heard about the impending opening of the Museum of the Confederacy’s new branch at Appomattox that it consisted solely of fifteen flag poles on a plaza, with none of them flying a Confederate flag.  That the new museum will display many Confederate flags as well as a display about the flag’s history seems to have gone unnoticed by critics who claim the museum doesn’t honor Confederate heritage … although the purpose of this museum (as with other museums) is to share an understanding of Confederate history with a broad audience.

Nor has all of the criticism come from certain Confederate heritage advocates (I await the first “Flagging” of the facility by the usual suspects).  In an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch brought to my attention by Kevin Levin, King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP, declared that he had no plans to visit the museum, but that didn’t prevent him from passing judgment on it: “These people are still fighting the Civil War. They’re just not honest about the history and the story.”

Oh goodness.  That second sentence sounds just like a Virginia Flagger.  And the whole quote sounds like Ed Sebesta.

I’d love it if all these people got together on a single panel to air their complaints, followed by the typical (and unimaginative) press accounts of the discussion, so we can get past that exercise as quickly as possible.

It would seem to me that one might actually visit the museum (and I have plans to do so this year) before passing judgment on its contents or interpretation.  I’ve visited the Museum of the Confederacy once, and I plan to return.  It holds the flag of the 28th North Carolina, a regiment in which my wife’s ancestor served.  Indeed, I plan to take my wife and our youngest daughter to Gettysburg this June so that they can see where ancestors on both sides fought (including Seminary Ridge, Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, and Cemetery Ridge … between us we cover a good deal of the battle).

I’ve come to believe that “heritage” is not history.  Rather, it’s what people need to believe about the past as they seek validation for themselves and their views.  Some of the very people who are heritage advocates and decry “political correctness” engage in precisely the same process of which they are critical when it comes to understanding the past–not on its own terms, but according to their own needs and desires, all framed by a presentist view of history.  Thus the quest to “defend heritage” involves a rather interesting exercise in defining that “heritage,” with people disagreeing over what exactly is being defended.  Some of these folks wax in paranoid style about how the “heritage” that is being “defended” as well as its “defenders” are being “evilized” by strawmen of their own creation, convenient constructs to enhance their own sense of victimization.  Such folks need to get over themselves.

In this case both the NAACP and Confederate heritage groups such as the Virginia Flaggers engage in the same practice of criticizing that which they have not seen.  There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Sebesta and Chastain/Hathaway when it comes to that blunt fact.

Every once in a while museums don’t help their own cause.  The MOC once sold a toy Confederate black soldier.  More recently we’ve had the John Wilkes Booth bobblehead controversy.  These are but two of a series of decisions by museums that have been called into question, although I guess I’ve always seen gift shops for what they are, complete with trivial items.  On the whole, however, those incidents provide momentary distractions.

Folks, decide for yourself.  Visit the museum.  Share your impressions.  Let’s have an informed discussion about how museums help us understand history.

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4 thoughts on “Museums, History, Politics, and “Heritage”

  1. Unfortunately museums have to find ways to generate income. Unfortunately this increases the likelihood that the desire to sell will at times overcome the desire to educate. The toy soldier was probably intended to be “inclusive” for a wider consumer base and may have been thought up by a well-meaning but historically ignorant consultant. And then it becomes “evidence” for some folks. Look at the bright side. I’ve been ranting about the lack of photos, etc. Now I’ve seen an actual “Black Confederate”.. Although he does seem to be wearing blue.

  2. I looked up the word “presentist” and couldn’t find it in the dictionary. But I think I understand what this article is trying to say, anyway: it’s about people trying to communicate the past without even understanding the past.

    In my wife’s hometown in Southeast Ohio, someone has Confederate flags with the emblem “Heritage Not Hate” on them as the drapes on his windows. I wonder if someone like that could even identify the 1st National Confederate flag. Or if they could name 10 Confederate generals. Or name the 11 states that seceded from the Union. People like this reject the findings of scholars who have devoted their lives analyzing primary sources (letters, diaries, proclamations, songs, etc) so they can believe their own unfounded narrative which, I believe, is based on thinking the flag looks “kickass’ or their inability to admit people they want to honor (and it’s OK tho honor your ancestors) supported a cause committed to disunion and Black slavery.

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