I’ve been following the discussion on Confederate statues all across the US this summer, like a “Dead-head” for inadvertent on-line discussions on public history ( I’ve seen them play “Stop trying to erase history!” like 100 times). The comments on various local and national news reports illustrate Americans’ diverse understand the situation, the Civil War, the meaning behind monuments, the responsibility of museums, and preservation.
Some Basic arguments/ Greatest Hits include:
- “We should keep Confederate Statues, because they are historical.”
- “We should take them down because they are racist.”
- “We should move them to a graveyard.”
- “We should move them to a museum.”
- “I don’t know what we should do, but I wanted to comment anyway.”
- “I DON’T UNDERSTAND THE ISSUES AT HAND BUT I HATE CHANGE AND I LOVE CAPS LOCK!”
Lets look at argument 4, “We should move them to a museum.”
This past spring I traveled to Indianapolis for the NCPH and sat in on a panel “Hard Questions: When to Save a Museum and When to Let It Die?” that talked about knowing when to close a museum down. One issue that came up in the discussion was de-accessioning, or getting rid of stuff. Museums have way more stuff than they can take care of. Popular assumption is that museums can and want to take on anything you give them. Few people give a second thought to the idea of giving a museum a collection of old photos or unwanted antiques. Most museums don’t have the storage space that the Smithsonian has. Even the Smithsonian gets tight on space to store America’s ever accumulating precious junk. Museums, especially small local museums, depend on volunteer labor, and public support to keep their doors open, and their objects in good condition. Running a museum, and keeping artifacts is not cheap or simple.
Museum directors and curators have to decide what the museum can keep and what they can afford to sell or destroy. One panelist at the NCPH (I’m don’t remember who, but she sat on the far right side of the table…I’m so sorry) shared a story about a museum debating weather or not to keep their Oology collection. Oology is a fun word, and the scientific study of eggs. It was popular in the last century, people often-collected eggs as a hobby, blew them out, and gave them to happily accepting museums. Today, egg collections are not as popular. People don’t flood into museums asking about eggs. And, making matter worse, the specimens are very difficult to keep—egg shells, it turns out, are very easy to break. There is little reason for museums to continue to preserve the such collections.
Collection management is a real issue for museums. Expecting a local museum to gleefully take on a statue, or a few statues is inconsiderate of the issues facing museums and assumes the role they play in a community is akin to a U-Store. Argument 4 illustrates a general lack of museum appreciation. Rosenzweig and Thelen’s research pointed out years ago that Americans trust museums, but the Confederate Statue debate illustrates that most people don’t understand them. Trust + ignorance is a dangerous combo.
Museums are not simply repositories for old things. They are the product of professional and laymen experts who perform research, take part in discussions, and decide for their public what objects are valuable for telling certain narratives. This perhaps is the “issue” with museums, and why some see their visitorship waining—people don’t understand museums, or historical sites and objects the way they are presented in museums.
My research (dear new-reader) looks at how Virginians have used ghosts to understand historical place. At the core of this understandings is the belief that historical sites (as objects) are worthy of preservation because they are haunted (metaphysically special), or rather that things from or resembling the past carry with them kind of numen quality. The idea can divorce the significance of the historical site or object from the study of the object, or the curation of the site. Though, the attached ghost story or rumor of haunting illustrates some of the historical narrative attached to the place, the haunted interpretation obscure the role that museums and museum professional play in the preservation of objects and places. Ghosts are seductive, and can be reductive too.
We need to look at how the public understands how museums (and historical sites) function, not only to teach that “Put it in a museum” is not the answer to the Confederate Statue issue, but to bring about a better understanding of the institutions that Americans trust.
In a way this post is also a call for a mandatory “Museum Appreciation” course that all college students have to take. But that won’t happen, lol.
So, having read a lot of comments on recent news articles on Confederate statues, and having watched many episodes of “Hoarders: Buried Alive” as an Undergraduate I have put together a conversation between the United States and a counselor on “Hoarders: Buried Alive.”
Hi America, what a nice statue—it really looks like a person made out of stone. Oh, and look he is on a horse, nice horse. How many other statues like this do you have?
Okay, how many other late 19th/ early 20th century Confederate-themed statues do you have—that are just like this one?
OH, a whole bunch. We put up many, all over the country. They are great
Sure, but what makes this one special? Is it made by someone famous? Is the material made out of unique? Was it made in a style that is distinctive? Is this the only one on a horse?
I don’t know. I don’t care about that stuff so much. But, we can’t get rid of it. What if we forget about the Civil War?!
Oh that is an issue. Is this the only thing you have that reminds you of the Civil War?
No, we have battle fields, and graveyards, books, TV specials, reenactments, museums, and systemic racism.
Well, maybe you don’t need this statue? Maybe you just take a picture of it? (Maybe you hire a bunch of historians and anthropologists to 3D scan them all?)
No, we can’t get rid of it! If we do, you know, we’ll be just like the Nazis.
That is sort of a stretch.
Alena Pirok pops in: Do you think it’s haunted?
What? No, get out of here you! It is history and if we remove it, we will erase history.
Hmmm, that is not how history works. There are still many other outlets that tell the same story, and many other statues. Is this really about the statue and history, or are you afraid that taking the statue down is an indictment of the historical narrative you have enjoyed and have come to rely on as a constant?
…Maybe that, yea.
*Tears, hugs, bring in the dumpster* (that is usually how the show ended)
 “Hard Questions: When to Save a Museum and When to Let it Die?,” Katherine Crosby, University of South Carolina, Elyssa Ford, Northwest Missouri State University, Savannah Grandey, Historic Westville, Jay Price, Wichita State University, Sara Wilson, St. Joseph Museums, Inc.
 One reason to keep them, as the presenter point out, is so climate scientist can study the effects of climate change on egg density. So one little reason, just climate change, just a globally significant man-made event that we are not sure how to stop, NBD….
 On numan and museums see: Mains, Rachel P and James J Glynn, “Numinous Objects” in The Public Historian 15, no.1. (Winter 1993), 8-25. Catherine M. Cameron and John B. Gatewood, “Excursion into the Un-Remembered Past: What People Want from Visits to Historical Sites.” In The Public Historian 22.no.3. (Summer 2000), p107-127.
Also RIP Snooty, the world’s oldest manatee.