September 21, 2008

On the Nature of Exhibits at ACW Battlefields

As anyone who surfs the Civil War blogosphere will know, the new Gettysburg Battlefield Visitors Center has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy ever since its opening months back. It seems everything, including the quantity of artifacts, admission fees, and the quality or lack thereof of the bookstore/gift shop has come under fire. One issue that has also generated debate is the nature of the exhibits, which seem to have shifted from a purely military interpretation to one that now draws focus toward slavery, race and their roles as the cause of the war and their bitter legacy once the war ended.

Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory has done excellent work in chronicling these issues and their relativity to how we in the 21st century have chosen to remember the Civil War. He writes in a response to one comment as to how the new Gettysburg VC provides a "sophisticated narrative that deals with some very difficult issues such as the cause of the war." Let's be frank. The issues of slavery, race and the uneasiness that such topics still present to us as a society 150 years later is the elephant in the corner of the room that many are dancing around as part of this debate. Heck, anyone who is closely following the current presidential election has read editorials ad nauseum that describe this elephant. As to the ACW, a core question is in what type of venue, how, and to what extent should the central cause of the war be explained to a 21st-century public who wants to learn more about the Civil War.

All clear thinkers will acknowledge that slavery was the fundamental reason for the war, and that it left a bitter legacy for decades to follow. But should those facts be front, center, and rear at every turn? From what I've experienced from visits to major battlefield visitor centers and traveling museum exhibitions over the past ten years or so, it seems that race and gender (Gallagher’s Emancipation Cause) have taken leading positions in the "new" enlightened narrative which the NPS has obviously embraced. It appears that the traditional battlefield narratives of tactics, “glory,” gallantry, etc. have now been given a back seat, whereas the "why" of the war and its lasting social impact are paramount. In other words, and in my humble opinion, the racial "historical context" that we all agree is important has become preeminent and, dare I say, perhaps even somewhat "in your face." Let me stress, I am not arguing that slavery’s primacy should not be discussed at a battlefield dedicated to interpreting a specific Civil War engagement, but only questioning to what degree relative to the battlefield’s raison d'être. This applies to museum exhibits as well. To illustrate my point, I clearly recall how at a major museum exhibition in Orlando, Florida titled “The Civil War in Florida,” there was more space (which included interactive exhibits) given to the legacy of slavery and its impact on the 1960’s civil rights movement than there was to presenting the 1864 Florida Campaign and its climactic battle of Olustee.

It's just my non-scientific opinion, but I believe that most people who visit a Civil War battlefield like Gettysburg do so to learn about that particular 19th-century battle or campaign. They have their maps in hand and try to envision the gray or blue lines sweeping over the fields they’re standing on. Perhaps they’ll briefly close their eyes and try to smell the smoke and hear the roar of battle within their mind’s eye. Having seen the lay of the land, they now understand how a unique piece of geography may have affected a particular outcome. Everyone agrees that some background context is important but from what I’ve personally seen and read, it feels like there’s been a tidal-shift in the other direction – whether we, the Civil War consumer, need it, like it, or not.

The importance of slavery and its racial legacy should not be marginalized. These issues need to be presented to the public. But I do not believe they need to be front and center at every NPS or state battlefield. For those who want a more in-depth education about this sad chapter, there's the National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is in downtown Cincinnati. Here in southeast Michigan, there's the wonderful Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. I'm sure there are more – and visitors to these excellent museums should not expect nor receive lectures on the battle of Gettysburg.


Unknown said...

Excellent post Paul and I appreciate the link. I agree with much of what you have to say. We do not need to go into the causes and consequences at every Civil War site. That said, I don't even believe that in the places where it is appropriate that we have to choose between such factors and sufficient coverage of a battle. It's one of the reasons why I am such a fan of the exhibit at Getysburg. There is plenty to occupy the most demanding of military enthusiasts. Even more, the curators of the exhibit successfully stretched what the battlefield covers, including civilians and the aftermath.

In my opinion Gettysburg is an ideal place to explore broader issues given its place in our national narrative and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

Kevin at Civil War Memory

Anonymous said...

A very good post indeed. Unfortunately the National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va is nothing more than a website and an undeveloped lot. This project has been mired in local politics and rumors of crooked business implications since it started. Most residents here will be surprised if they ever do build something. It’s a real shame that both sides (city and museum) have never been able to come together so that this important project can come to fruition.

Paul Taylor said...

Kevin / Michael-

Thank You both for your kind comments.