What do museums have to say about, or learn from, recent events in Charlottesville? Museum leaders and professionals have shared statements condemning and consoling, from their position as community leaders. Bloggers and professional organizations have also shared resources, as museums take on the role of educators. Thankfully but not surprisingly, museums and museum professionals are advocates tolerance and social justice. But museums are more than community leaders and educators – they are also the keepers and narrators of history.
What are the museum-specific questions that arise from the events in Charlottesville? One question is whether museums should become the repositories for statues of Confederate leaders. This question has been addressed by a number of museum leaders, art historians, art critics, and others.In the larger picture – beyond Confederate statues, thinking more generally about social justice and the fight for what’s just and right – there is the question of how museums present their subjects. Should museums be storytellers lighting a moral path, or keepers of the complexity of historical fact?
In a 2001 article in the New York Review of Books, James M. McPherson noted that during the Civil War both Union and Confederate leaders would have said that the slavery was the cause of the war. But within a few years, after the South had lost and slavery was illegal, Confederate leaders re-framed the war as a battle “to vindicate state sovereignty.” McPherson reviews three books; one of them, The Myth of the Lost Cause, is a book of essays about the creation of this myth that “helped Southern whites deal with the shattering reality of catastrophic defeat and impoverishment in a war they had been sure they would win.” This myth, first articulated by Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, and Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, was repeated over and over through the decades, and in the 20th century gained status as historical explanation. This explanation became prevalent, which was proven to me recently when, in a group of ten people discussing this article, at least three of us had been taught in elementary school that the Civil War was fought for states rights.
Myths, and other forms of storytelling, are powerful. As psychologist Lane Beckes shared in a previous Museum Questions post, stories make us pay attention, and engage us in a particular perspective. Unfortunately, the myth of the Confederacy clearly has enormous power to engage a large number of people in a shared cause.
If museums are effective storytellers, perhaps they can help reframe the way people think about historical moments, and therefore the way they – we – think about the present. Museums have the power to persuade by telling carefully crafted stories, and by bringing to the forefront the stories that have the power to change minds.
Alternately, museums can complicate the story by sharing historical detail. They can show the work that historians do, making sense of a messy and complicated past. These stories are more accurate, and less effective as a form of persuasion. In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, historian Eric Foner contextualizes recent events by noting that this is “a debate that goes back to the founding of the republic. Should American nationality be based on shared values, regardless of race, ethnicity and national origin, or should it rest on ‘blood and soil'”? Foner tells the history of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, a Confederate officer who is not commemorated in statues, because “He endorsed black male suffrage and commanded the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans, which in 1874 engaged in armed combat with white supremacists.”
Foner’s story – no doubt already simplified somewhat to fit into the space of a short newspaper piece – opens a window to the complexity of history and human nature. Should museums leave room for the stories of Confederate soldiers who also contributed to the world in a positive way?
As an example of museums sharing complexities, one can look at art museums. Art museums often share a level of art historical detail that makes labels difficult to read, while the objects on view grow repetitive. See, for example, the framing and introductory text for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Beyond the Easel from 2001 – the exhibition overview alone covers multiple artists, multiple influences, the details of the artists’ financial woes, and more. But art historians and art curators might argue that this detail is necessary to tell a “true” story, one rooted in art history rather than myth.
I don’t know whether it is possible to tell effective stories while also sharing complexity. A friend who visited the Lincoln Museum recently pointed out that they do both, in separate exhibit areas. One set of galleries is filled with emotion-provoking dioramas from Lincoln’s life; the other shares a more complex history that left my friend with the thought that, had Lincoln lived, he might have been hated instead of glorified. Eric Foner’s article, cited above, adds complexity to the narrative of the Confederacy while also providing a good story. But undoubtedly combining the two approaches, with an eye to reaching new audiences and promoting a just world, is challenging.
Museums began as cabinets of curiosity, spaces for marvelous objects, not stories. There is no inherent mandate toward good storytelling or historical detail. What role do we want museums to play in the way people understand and use history? Should museums be storytellers, or truth-tellers?