The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves
April 4, 2007 9:48 AM   Subscribe

Lost Cause [WaPo, bugmenot] History museums are a repository for public memory, but also a nation's mirrors, reflecting self-image. When our views of history shift, museums that fail to change are likely to fail in general. Today's Washington Post reports on the struggle and decline of the Museum of the Confederacy, contrasting it with the American Civil War Center, nearby geographically, worlds away in philosophy.
posted by Miko (18 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Meanwhile, the National Civil War Museum touts 'unbiased,' 'equally balanced,' and 'humanistic' interpretation, the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum tells the story of a 'heroic and largely unknown struggle for freedom,' Gettysburg focuses on camp life for soldiers and the 1863 battle as turning point; and the Smithsonian presents an artifact timeline. Just a smattering of Civil War museums or exhibits with a presence on the web.
posted by Miko at 9:54 AM on April 4, 2007

A good friend of mine used to work there as the Registrar. She said that about once a month, a woman would come into the museum, go up to this one sword on the wall and just weep for like, an HOUR. She claimed to be in love with the sword's original owner, a fallen Confederate general.

This in a town that has an active Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter that marches around Richmond's monuments to Confederate heroes on what was, until 2000, Lee-Jackson-King Day.
posted by chinese_fashion at 9:55 AM on April 4, 2007

This is interesting, but all of my emotion right now is focussed on the recent closing of the American Dime Museum. I can't believe I never went, I just kept saying "someday" and then it was fucking gone. I didn't even hear about it until I heard about the auction.
posted by OmieWise at 10:21 AM on April 4, 2007

Google satellite view.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:48 AM on April 4, 2007

I can't speak for how true to the opinions of the modern-day South it is, but there's a chapter on these museums and the surrounding communities in Horowitz's Confederates in the Attic. Actually the whole book is about the philosophical split mentioned in the post, and the people who hold onto the past. (Would love to hear thoughts on how prevalent this death-grip on the past is from people who aren't journalists... anyone?)
posted by whatzit at 11:03 AM on April 4, 2007

She said that about once a month, a woman would come into the museum, go up to this one sword on the wall and just weep for like, an HOUR.

Wow, how very 19th-century. I wanted to make snarky phallicism references but I'm too touched.
posted by pax digita at 11:29 AM on April 4, 2007

Nice article, thanks! It's nice to see the South is finally outgrowing the Lost Cause.

I too am touched by the Sword Weeper. And they wonder why Southern literature is so rich! Y'all don't have near the quality of crazy folks up North!
posted by languagehat at 11:58 AM on April 4, 2007

Confederates in the Attic was an excellent book. I thought about as I made this post, because Horowitz' basic thesis is that as a culture, we are still fascinated by the Civil War because we are still fighting it, in a way: not over race and slavery, but over whether we continue to choose to be a united nation, whether we still believe we can sacrifice individual, local, and state freedom to federalism, and if so, how much. We use the Civil War to talk about those ideas, and about race, and about the characteristics of American regions and what they contribute to the nation as a whole.

Would love to hear thoughts on how prevalent this death-grip on the past is from people who aren't journalists... anyone?

Well, I'm not a professional journalist, but I am half Southern. The clearest demonstration I ever got of the 'death grip on the past' attitude came when my grandmother was in hospice care in Alabama at the home of a cousin. The cousin had married an ol'boy who grew up in segregated rural Alabama and worked as a commercial trucker, though he rarely left the South. I had not met him before that.

Within a few hours of my arrival at the airport, we were sitting at the dining table, paging through the family history (with hand-colored illustrations) depicting the great heroes in his bloodline, and examining their artifacts of service (dagger, epaulets, letters). This was offered by my cousin's husband as an introduction to the rest of the family.He felt a lot of pride in sharing this material with us, definitely confident that we would be impressed, and clearly, it was a big part of his identity (despite the fact that it had all unfolded nearly 100 years before his death). What was kind of amusing was that we were more interested in his own biography (he had grown up in a house without running water or electricity, and attended a segregated one-room 'academy,' and his family hunted raised most of their own food, etc.), but in his own community stories like that were a dime a dozen. The value he placed on his family's role in the Confederacy was far greater than that he placed on his own life experience.

This was one personal example of the kind of thing Horowitz speaks about. I have seen lots of Civil War glorification in the South, but this was the closest experience I had with it as an individual. Though not defensible in my mind, Civil War glorification makes some strange sense in context. Once the Civil War and reconstruction were over, most of the South fell into depression and widespread poverty and spent the century struggling with Jim Crow and civil rights issues. The glory days of extreme wealth for the white elite, and romantic doomed struggles of honor for the cause of the land you loved seemed relatively good, active, and noble, apparently, in retrospect.

This was one particular person, though, and not at all representative of other people I know in the South. I'd say it's a not-unfamiliar cultural thread, but certainly not every Southerner shares these values and ideas.

And hey, the Dime Museum! That's terrible! It looks fascinating. How sad for them to close because of finances. I wish they had found some other way to handle the demise, such as turn it into a rentable traveling exhibit or contract with a museum program at a university to maintain it the way the Nut Museum did. It would have been an excellent lab for a Museum Studies or American studies program, I imagine. Sad to hear.
posted by Miko at 12:12 PM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Actually, a lot of the attractions from the Dime Museum are still on display at the Palace of Wonders on H St., NE, in D.C.
Co-owner James Taylor spent years collecting sideshow oddities and carnival memorabilia for the American Dime Museum in Baltimore, which he ran with ex-partner Dick Horne. Taylor moved his treasures to Washington this year, and now you can peer into dimly lit glass cases on the Palace of Wonders' second floor and gawk at the taxidermied body of the Last Living Unicorn, which once traveled with the Ringling Bros. circus, nine-foot-tall Peruvian mummies, an eight-legged goat named Spider Billy, furry fish and a one-gallon jar holding the preserved head of a huge python.
Rest of the article here. (Scroll down.)

I've been there and it looks pretty cool ... and kinda SMELLS like the Dime Museum. Whuagh.
posted by chinese_fashion at 12:36 PM on April 4, 2007

Ooohhh...I was under the impression it might be a complete, preserved 19th century dime museum rather than a re-created collection. That does change matters a bit. There is more perceived value in original collections that have never been broken up than in collections that have been amassed secondarily from many sources over time.

I bet it's still fun though. It's always fun to see weird stuff.
posted by Miko at 12:45 PM on April 4, 2007

It's nice to see the South is finally outgrowing the Lost Cause.

Hardly. The English still debate if the Norman Conquest (1066) was good or not, there are pro-Anglo Saxon / anti-Norman sites on the web.

Presently the south is looking forward, outward and international - but it will return to introspection at some point. Interest in the Civil War I think peaked in the 1990s, with the post-911 atmosphere it's become less interesting to discuss America's darkest crises, the enemy is external now.
posted by stbalbach at 12:56 PM on April 4, 2007

As a White Southerner, I grew up with a great deal of Civil War glorification, and certainly still carry around a bit of with me today. I'm young, I grew up in the 90s, and I grew up in a family that was very integrated. I think for me it's something different from the nostalgia for a economically prosperous past or a nostalgia for racism in the past.

It's hard to deal with coming from a place that is more or less condemned by popular culture. If you're someone who's ancestors lived in the South since the Civil War, there's an implication that you are responsible for the great evils of our nation's history, slavery, segregation, etc. It's very hard to deal with being told that, especially for the young.

There's a strong sense in the South that people from outside the South don't respect us, and don't understand us. They think we're stupid, we don't like that and we rebel against that. One natural reaction is to embrace that separate history and accentuate the positive aspects. This is not the only reaction, and not everyone who thinks the South is special embracing the Confederacy as the symbol of that specialness. That said, many do.

This is especially true when you have a personal connection to that history. I am a direct descendant of someone who fought in the Civil War and it's only natural for me to be proud of my past. We're far from the only people in the world, who embrace a checkered past.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:57 PM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the post. I had the pleasure of having dinner last week with the leading historian of Reconstruction who had a big role in the recent redesign of the interpretive facilities at Gettysburg. He said that the displays there had reflected a 1920s understanding to the Civil War and mentioned slavery and blacks hardly at all. This despite the fact that some of the battle took place on the farm of a free black family, who had fled in advance of Lee's army, which was seizing and enslaving free blacks on their march into Pennsylvania.

I asked what it would take to bring the rest of the major Civil War sites into the 21st century in terms of their interpretation. "One hundred million dollars," he answered.
posted by LarryC at 1:12 PM on April 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

I just wanted to mention my current home town has a Confederate Relic Room. I'd snark more, but it really does put a personal touch (albeit a very gilded one) on the common folk who fought that war. There are plenty of people with a "death grip on past" here. But just as many who, like me, find it an interesting part of their personal history, and are as likely to mention the Allied fighters, mill families and moonshiners in their family as the Confederates.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 1:16 PM on April 4, 2007

(thanks to those of you, like Miko and Bulgaroktonos, who are expanding on what Horowitz' book compares to real-life attitudes. For as much as I've experienced outside the US, I haven't gotten ot know the South of the US at all yet.)
posted by whatzit at 2:32 PM on April 4, 2007

Another museum which I never visited was Beauvoier, the historic home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. It never did have funding problems -- Mississippi likes its Confederate past, as you can tell from the state flag -- but it's in Biloxi, and it was almost completely destroyed by hurricane Katrina.
posted by localroger at 4:13 PM on April 4, 2007

Arrrgh, that's Beauvoir. FAILED PREVIEW 101.
posted by localroger at 4:13 PM on April 4, 2007

Mississippi likes its Confederate past, as you can tell from the state flag

Well that and not abolishing slavery until 1995.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:51 PM on April 4, 2007

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