Getting the flavor of…
The new American Civil War Museum
Richmond, Va.’s newest cultural attraction “aims to shatter expectations of what a Civil War museum looks like,” said Gregory Schneider in The Washington Post. Created by merging two local institutions that once offered dueling perspectives on the conflict, the American Civil War Museum shows how the 1861–65 conflagration touched everyone in the divided nation, whether Northern or Southern, male or female, white, black, Native American, or Hispanic. “Yes, there are all the artifacts you’d expect”: tattered battle flags, Robert E. Lee’s hat, and scores of similar objects. But the emphasis is on individuals, represented in letters, diary entries, and oversize colorized photos. “The result is surprising, like seeing modern people cast back into historical settings.”
“The merger of the two institutions is the stuff of Hollywood,” said Andrew Davenport in Smithsonian.com. The 120-year-old Museum of the Confederacy was once the chief purveyor of Confederate apologias; the American Civil War Center had a dynamic black female CEO who faced pushback from white supremacists when she became the leader of the merger, but was endorsed by her counterpart, a white Southerner with three great-grandfathers who fought for secession. Fittingly, the new $25 million facility, which incorporates the ruins of the riverfront foundry where the South’s cannons were manufactured, “redefines the war’s legacy as perpetually bound to our always-fraught present.” In the “breathtakingly inventive” first gallery stands a reconstruction of a Virginia house that was blown to splinters during the First Battle of Bull Run, killing the widow who lived there. The display “demonstrates how the war came to the literal doorstep of each and every American,” and prepares the way for an accounting that incorporates multiple perspectives. Given the arguments the war still generates, its stories are perhaps best heard this way, and the message really sinks in when you exit the galleries into a city studded to this day with Confederate monuments.