Civil War Museums Changing As Views On War Change

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NEW ORLEANS — Inside Louisiana’s Civil War Museum, battle flags line the walls. Uniforms, swords and long-barreled guns fill museum cases beside homespun knapsacks, dented canteens and tiny framed pictures of wives that soldiers carried into battle.

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In the back, there’s a collection devoted to Jefferson Davis, one-time president of the Confederacy formed by the southern states which seceded from the United States in 1861, complete with his top hat and fancy shoes at the spot where his body once lay in state.

It’s all housed in a little red stone building next door to the bigger and much more heavily visited Ogden Museum of Southern Art and near the National World War II Museum. Yet 150 years after the Civil War, the little museum finds itself struggling — like others both in the North and South — to make changes and stay relevant with new generations.

For some museums, that means more displays on African-Americans or exhibits on the roles women played as combatants and spies. For others, it means adding digital maps and electronic displays to attract tech-savvy youth. Or it may simply mean adopting a wider, more holistic approach to the war — without taking sides.

But it’s not always easy for museums to update their exhibits because of the high costs, curators say. And some would-be visitors’ dollars are kept away by the perception that southern Civil War museums are one-sided — or even racist — because of the legacy of slavery in the South.

“It’s a challenge on several fronts, one is getting enough money for it,” said John Coski, historian and library director at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. “Most have recognized the need to make the transition to a more modern perspective, but for some that’s a struggle. Especially in the South, there are still strong feelings about some of these museums.”

Louisiana’s museum opened in 1891, then called “Confederate Memorial Hall: The Battle Abbey of the South.” The combative name was dropped in the 1960s and today it’s seeking a “more inclusive, broader” perspective, museum curator Patricia Ricci said. It has been invited to become affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, which will further spur the effort to showcase a more modern interpretation of the war.

“I think we will add some information on the Union effort here,” Ricci said. “And we will probably make some other additions with it. It always comes down to money, and we never have enough.”

Today, the museum has the second largest collection of Confederate artifacts in the U.S. Visitors can view the uniforms of eight Confederate generals from Louisiana, rare swords and rifles, more than 125 original battle flags and rare photographs.

Ricci, the museum’s curator of 31 years, notes that fewer people have visited the museum with each decade since the 1950s. But the 150th anniversary offers hope that a tide of new visitors will arrive. Attendance in December was up by 800 people over 2010, Ricci said.

The 150th anniversary observances began in April with the commemoration of the first shots fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. It will end in four years with remembrances of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in Virginia.

For now, the Confederate Museum draws just a fraction of the visitors who flock to bigger museums nearby, averaging about 16,000 people a year. That’s down from some 20,000 visitors before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.

The museum’s main revenue source is the $7 fee collected from each visitor, leaving it forever scrambling to make ends meet. Many of the artifacts are in need of restoration; the building needs a new slate roof and still hasn’t added the handicapped facilities it wants.

“We have to be very frugal,” Ricci said. “I look at the World War II museum which gets millions of visitors and wish we could get just part of that.”

Some visitors do stumble upon the museum after visiting the others nearby — and are surprised by its scope.

“I think it’s a very important part of our history,” said Rose Adams, 47, visiting from Dallas. “This is a wonderful display, full of such interesting things. I just happened on it after going to the World War II museum.”

Interest in the Civil War got a huge boost in 1990 with the airing of Ken Burns’ Public Broadcasting Service documentary on the war, still the most-watched public television series ever.

“One of the interesting things is that the series did in the North was it really provided a sense of ownership of the Civil War, which had been since 1865 the province of the South,” Burns said. “We ceded the interest generally to the South, which is unusual, because it’s usually the winners who write the history, not the losers.”

But he notes museums that may have once been shrines to one side or another are adapting new kinds of displays exploring the war from new angles.

“I think a lot of that is changing and getting more centered on the war and not a distorted idea of it,” Burns said. “Basically museums have started to interpret a more holistic look of the war.”

In Charleston, the National Park Service has worked to make anniversary events more hospitable to blacks, offering events featuring Gullah story tellers and basket weavers, discussions of slavery and programs with re-enactors portraying black units that fought for the North. Gullah is the culture of the descendants of slaves who live on the region’s sea islands.

Later this year the Charleston Museum will mount an exhibition about Robert Smalls, the slave who commandeered a Confederate transport vessel and piloted it past Southern batteries to the blockading Union fleet. He later served five terms in Congress from South Carolina.

Still, the feeling that southern museums dedicated to the war are racist is a lingering problem, said President and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, Waite Rawls.

“It’s still one of the greatest challenges Confederate museums face, and we are all working on it,” he said. “Unfortunately the Confederate flag was used as a symbol of white supremacy in the civil rights era. We got hit with a double whammy of the 1860s and the 1960s.”

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