Swept Away By History

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007


This is what the Museum of the Confederacy, the onetime "Shrine of the South," has come down to:

Attendance has dropped by nearly half over the past decade. The museum has been losing about $400,000 each year for a decade. Employees have been laid off, hours curtailed. A recent report by a panel of outside experts in museum management concluded that the 117-year-old institution was at a "tipping point" that was going to affect "its very existence."

And this is in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Things are so bleak that the museum will likely have to sell its $7 million site to raise cash. It needed a $400,000 emergency grant from the state legislature earlier this month to allow it more time to look for a new home.

It may even have to change its name. That same doleful report said the Museum of the Confederacy, though it has made efforts to distance itself from being an unabashed shrine, still "conjures up in the public mind images of slavery, racism, and intolerance. . . . [It] carries enormous, intransigent, and negative intellectual and emotional baggage."

The museum and the adjacent White House of the Confederacy, the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis during the Civil War (and a National Historic Landmark), have been swallowed by a medical complex that surrounds and towers above them, to the point where they are shoehorned onto eight-tenths of an acre at the end of a dead-end downtown street -- just beyond the emergency-room entrance.

"Most museums don't make but record history," says S. Waite Rawls III, the museum's executive director, a former banker brought in a few years ago in an attempt to restore solvency. "But the museum was where Confederate veterans came to give their items to make a statement. Richmond was the epicenter of the Civil War. . . . So yes, there's a symbolic message to our moving."

At its simplest, the saga of the museum is that of a historic institution trying to make its way in the modern age, a privately managed facility with a history of poor finances and a lack of parking, bedeviled by a world far more interested in roller coasters at Kings Dominion than in battle flags from Gettysburg.

But it's also about a historic shift in the mind-set of the white South, whose psychological underpinnings were held together for more than a century by the romantic ideal of "the lost cause" of the Confederacy. This held the antebellum world as a largely mythological place, a land of moonlight and magnolias, of "Gone With the Wind," of mint juleps and Henry Timrod's "Ode to the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery":

Stoop, angels, hither from the skies!

There is no holier spot of ground

Than where defeated valor lies . . .

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