Today we bring you Part Two of 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 is in two parts. Please check out Part One, posted yesterday, here.
Museums have not always been as inclusive as they are today. In the past, museums focused on cataloging the collections of wealthy men. They were exclusive men’s clubs and did not open to the public until the early 1800s. As Colonial Revival took hold in the mid to late 1800s, museums became places that reflected a simpler time and upper class ideals. The inclusivity and accessibility that many museums tout today was nowhere to be found. Today, museums incorporate accessibility and a code of ethics. While many controversial collections remain in storage, many others are on display and invite visitors to think about a topic that could make them a bit uncomfortable.
While it is important to be ethical and inclusive, museums also have to figure out how to handle patrons who may disagree with museum practices. In the case of the Museum of the Confederacy, many members terminated their membership over the controversy about the Confederate flag. Those who donated family heirlooms to the museum’s collection did so “believing that this was going to be a memorial to the Confederacy, and the Confederate soldier and the cause for which he fought.” As the museum’s physical structure and name (as described above) changed, so did its mission. This did not sit well with many Virginians and other Southern groups who visited.
When the community around a museum is unhappy with the museum’s practices, it affects visits and membership. This brings up a potentially difficult situation, because local support and funding as well as wealthy member donations have the power to sway the path of a museum. In the case of the Museum of the Confederacy, their mission now states that their goal is:
“To be the preeminent center for the exploration of the American Civil War
and its legacies from multiple perspectives: Union and Confederate, enslaved
and free African Americans, soldiers and civilians.”
The issues and lessons to be learned from the Museum of the Confederacy’s dilemma about how to interpret the Confederate battle flag relate to the museum profession as a whole. How each museum decides to deal with potentially uncomfortable topics projects to the community and to the world exactly what the purpose of museums is. If museums want to be places like the historic house museums of Colonial Revival where negative history is ignored and replaced by with a halcyon glow around them, there is a decision to be made. If museums want to introduce an historical event from many perspectives, like the Museum of the Confederacy began to do, that comes with an entirely different set of staff training needs and visitor assumptions.
A museum event, exhibition, or program that gets visitors interacting about this encounter offers a chance to deal with different perspectives respectfully. Consider an event this past July. Leroy Smith, an African American public safety officer on detail at a white supremacist rally following the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House. As an older protester, decked out in full swastika-covered attire, begins to falter, Smith went to him and helped him up the steps to get some water.
Ultimately, and interestingly, the flag removed from the South Carolina State House made its way to a state-controlled museum. This is a powerful move, underlining the responsibility that museums have to care for such objects. Museums also take on the decision of just how to display and frame these controversial symbols within its walls. This is a big responsibility, bringing with it the potential for loss of membership and funding, as the Museum of the Confederacy discovered. Yet it also offers the possibility for engaging discussions and inspiring change. Education programs and programming related to controversial collections objects or museum topics can be a helpful way to draw visitors into the discussion.
In the words of South Carolina’s lieutenant governor Tate Reeves, “Flags and emblems are chosen by a group of people as a symbol of all that unites and ties the group together. The good and bad in our shared history, and all that we have learned from it, is something that ties us together.” There is a place for museums to take a role in mitigating controversy rather than avoiding it. There is still more to be done to confront controversy head on, dealing with negative aspects of history and using discussions to illuminate contemporary issues. The most effective service a museum can offer is a forum for discussion. Creating a safe space for the community to come together and navigate issues is a far better way to deal with continuing controversy. Difficult histories exist and ignoring them does not make them disappear.