The Museum of the Confederacy

confederate white house

(Photo credit: White House of the Confederacy, courtesy J. Stephen Conn, Flickr Creative Commons)

Location, location, location! The old marketing adage can usefully be applied to some of the nation’s most important monuments and historic sites. The Museum of the Confederacy provides a pretty good case study of what happens when location—both physical and ideological—goes from being a big plus to a big minus.

Close to the center of Richmond, near the Virginia state capitol, lie the Confederate White House and the Museum of the Confederacy. Both buildings are run privately (originally by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society), and they are operated together. They stand in what was once one of the most exclusive residential sections of the city, though things have changed somewhat in that regard (see below).

Although it is privately run, the museum has received public funding, including several federal NEH grants for special exhibitions and for a restoration of the Confederate White House. It has also received grants from the state government, especially when it ran into financial problems (Coski, 2013; Tucker, 2007). Most problematically, it has tried to make itself more acceptable to African-American sentiments, which naturally would be less inclined to be charitable to it. The results of these efforts have been mixed.

The museum is interesting—and, in some quarters, controversial—because of its origins as a shrine to the Confederacy (housed in the Confederate White House) before it transformed itself into a more modern museum. It has never lost sight of these origins, though: It is set up to depict the Civil War from a Confederate point of view and its artifacts are overwhelmingly Confederate.

Unfortunately, the museum itself is a little tired and dated looking: It was completed in the 1970s and doesn’t look like it has been updated much since then. Its displays are static and don’t encourage much interaction. However, the exhibits themselves are fascinating—the museum’s collection is enormous—and they include a huge collection of confederate battle flags and Lee’s camp bed and tent.

The next-door Confederate White House—a Virginia Historic Landmark and National Historic Landmark (since 1963)—is worth seeing, and to me this is the more interesting of the two sites. It’s called the Confederate White House because it is the actual building used by Confederate president Jefferson Davis for almost the entire period that Richmond acted as capital. (It wasn’t the first—that was in Montgomery, Alabama—but Davis moved there in May 1861, after Virginia joined the Confederacy.)

At first sight the exterior of this neoclassical mansion is a little underwhelming, and suffers in comparison with the White House in Washington, DC. For one thing, the building is actually light gray, not white. Also, in contrast to its DC counterpart, this is a much smaller—though still substantial—3-story structure. There are a few cracks visible in the stucco edifice. But a bigger problem to my mind is that the building is surrounded and dwarfed by the Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital, which has grown up and around it and whose buildings now tower over it. There is literally no grass or yard surrounding the historic structure, only a street surface of red brick laid out in herringbone fashion, going right up to the exterior walls (see photo above).

This is a problem with many historic structures that stand in urban areas that have seen extensive development, but it is particularly galling here. A structure’s surroundings make a real difference to the experience a visitor has when viewing a historic site. In this case, the ideal setting would have preserved or recreated the street setting that existed in the 1860s. The building at that time sat on a middle-upper class residential street, on a small but substantial lot with a yard, and surrounded by other similar period structures. Most of these original buildings have long since been pulled down, eventually to be replaced with the giant, modern (and frankly ugly) hospital buildings that stand there today. Obviously it would be asking a lot to have the original arrangement preserved intact after more than a century and a half. But the situation that has developed in this case, while undoubtedly beneficial for the economy of Richmond, is less than ideal for historic memorialization. (It’s worth noting that even our most important historic structures often suffer from this problem: Independence Hall, for example, lies uncomfortably close to high-rise buildings in Philadelphia’s Old City.)

Although the Confederate White House’s exterior has suffered, the interior is more satisfying. It has been completely restored, and is very opulent in that mid-Victorian way. At the time of our visit the tour guide was engaging and informative (though I found his inability to meet anyone’s gaze a little off-putting). I really got a sense of how Jefferson Davis lived his life here during the war years. It’s just a shame that the exterior could not engage the imagination they way the interior does. Obviously it is great that the building has been saved. But in losing the surrounding environment we have lost something important. This is clearly why tourists flock to cities such as Charleston and Savannah, where streets and entire neighborhoods have effectively been preserved in something close to their original (antebellum) condition.

The issue of location also plays a role in the cultural politics of Richmond, now a majority-black city where African-Americans are bound to view with suspicion an institution commemorating a system based so fundamentally on slavery. The museum has for much of the last decade been playing around with the idea of moving the museum out of Richmond, either to a single new site or to a system of new satellite museums around the state. At one point the museum director even floated a plan to move the actual Confederate White House building, brick by brick, to a new site. Faced with heavy criticism, that plan seems to have been shelved (Tucker, 2007).

But the political angle runs deeper than that of a museum stuck in an unappealing location in a changing city. The deeper issue affecting the Museum of the Confederacy is its strong and continuing associations with a divisive view of history—a view based on a romantic and outdated notion of what the Confederacy stood for, and a view that has long tried to sideline or excuse the role of slavery. There’s still a whiff of the glory of the Lost Cause about the place, a faint whisper that the South should indeed rise again. That is perhaps inevitable, given the museum’s origins. Yet throughout most of the 20th century, even into the early 1990s, that association helped maintain the museum’s popularity with large numbers of visitors—mostly white, native-born Southerners. Those days are passing, however. Visitation has dropped precipitously, from a high of 91,000 a year in the early 1990s to about 50,000 in the late 2000s (Tucker, 2007). Virginia, like much of the South, is changing demographically, with more Hispanics and Asians and many more incoming Northerners of all backgrounds, settling in a state in which barely 50 percent of the current inhabitants were born. Few if any of these newcomers have any sort of personal or sentimental attachment to the “Gone With the Wind” version of Southern history. Meanwhile, the new (and very nice) American Civil War Museum, also in Richmond at the nearby site of the Tredegar Iron Works, offers a more nuanced view of the Civil War, investigating the conflict from multiple perspectives: the South, the North, and the African-American. (I’ll be writing a post about that site shortly.) Such an approach seems much more in tune with the multicultural zeitgeist of America in the 21st century. And it leaves the Museum of the Confederacy, with its dated infrastructure and its focus on an outdated vision of the past, floundering.

Sources:

John M. Coski (2013). Museum of the Confederacy. Encyclopedia Virginia. Available at http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Museum_of_the_Confederacy

Neely Tucker (2007). Swept away by history. Washington Post. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/03/AR2007040301915.html

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One response to “The Museum of the Confederacy

  1. Pingback: Tredegar Iron Works and the “Dukes of Hazzard” | The Memory Hollow·

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