Today we bring you an article by Claire Pettit, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Studies certificate program. For Museums Today: Mission and Function, the foundation course required for all Museum Studies students, students research and report on a recent topic regarding museums in the news. Claire’s examination of the role of the Confederate flag in museum collections will be in two parts. Part Two will be posted tomorrow morning, so stay tuned!
“It’s an hysteria—we just want to fly this flag for family, for Grandpappy. This whole thing is basically insulting and demeaning our respect for our ancestors.”
~Ben Jones, Sons of Confederate Veterans
“I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed.”
~Philip Gunn, Mississippi Republican
To this day, the politics of the United States are deeply divisive when it comes to the symbolism surrounding the Confederate battle flag. After the killing of nine members of an African American congregation in Charleston, S.C., South Carolina’s Senate decided to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of their state house. Confederate veterans’ descendants who donated to the collections of Virginia’s Museum of the Confederacy with the understanding that it was a memorial to the Confederacy became angered when the battle flag was not displayed there. Politicians in the South continue to debate over whether or not the flag should continue to be flown at public buildings. Many simply want to avoid angering people and agree to take down the controversial symbol.
John M. Coski is trying to change the perception of the Confederate flag. As chief historian at the Museum of the Confederacy, his goal is to “’modernize from a shrine’ to the Old South.” Recently, the museum joined forces with the American Civil War Center and they now operate under the title of the American Civil War Museum. But many other Virginians take issue with this, chide the museum for keeping their flags in storage, and have terminated their membership to the museum. There are hundreds of confederate flags in the collections at the Museum of the Confederacy. Do they need to be hidden? Is this harming or helping the process of dealing with the controversy?
In this vein, many of the flags at the Museum of the Confederacy have personal touches that set them apart from the mainstream view of racism so many people associate them with. They are created from bridal gowns or incorporated into an apron. There are also many versions of the Confederate flag, not all resembling the controversial Confederate battle flag. Recently, Christy Coleman (an African American museum specialist) and S. Waite Rawls (a descendant of Confederate soldiers) teamed up to run a new branch of the Museum of the Confederacy in Appomattox, VA. There, they display the collection’s diverse Confederate flags to show the many versions of the flag, not just the Confederate battle flag. They hope that by doing this, the multitude of meanings the flag has taken on over time can begin to be discovered. The discovery and acceptance of these many meanings is difficult to structure in a way that remains inclusive to a wide variety of visitors. Programming at the Museum of the Confederacy deals with learning about a day in the life of a Confederate soldier, a black Southerner, and a woman or child left at home during the Civil War.
This is the story of the path that the Museum of the Confederacy took to deal with the controversial object (or objects) in its collection. However, the questions raised by the Confederate battle flag can also be asked of many other museums with diverse, controversial collections. This same tale of controversy springs up again and again at museums dealing with slavery, the Holocaust, death, the Gulag, and nudity. These types of topics tend to be played down in an attempt to create a “feel good” museum experience. Time and again museums learn that ignoring tough times in history is not a helpful thing to do. When serving the public, there is an ethical necessity to inspired discussion. So museum professionals and visitors alike need to think about the questions: Should the battle flag remain in storage? What are some thoughtful ways to display or present it? What are the teaching possibilities for the Museum of the Confederacy’s flag collection? The answers to these questions can influence exhibitions and programming at other museums who confront similar issues.