Swept Away By History
Virginia's Museum of the Confederacy Is Struggling Not to Become a Relic of the Past

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 . . .

These sorts of atmospherics floated about in the cultural id, but the tangible remnants of the belief were preserved here: Robert E. Lee's uniform, the plumed hat of J.E.B. Stuart, hundreds of battle flags, thousands of soldiers' letters from mud-filled trenches that soon would become their graves.

People brought such things from across the war-ravaged South, thousands of them, artifacts presented with such reverence that they were called "sacred relics."

"I went there in the 1960s when I was about 14, and it was a shrine, no question -- the sacred relics, locks of hair, all that," says Gary W. Gallagher, professor of Civil War history at the University of Virginia and author of more than a dozen books about the era.

Today, while the Museum of the Confederacy goes begging, the brand-new, $13 million American Civil War Center -- a museum that looks at the war from three perspectives (Southern, Northern and black) -- is a gleaming testament to what might be called a more modern memory of the past. It's only a few blocks away, on the banks of the James River at the city's Civil War-era gun foundry, a National Park Service site.

It's on an eight-acre campus -- 10 times the size of the Museum of the Confederacy site. The center's prime backers include Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson. Just six months old, it's already packed with school kids coming to learn about the Confederacy as a flawed participant in the Civil War, not as the Great Defender of (white) Southern Heritage.

You walk into the bookstore at the Museum of the Confederacy, then the one at the Civil War Center, and the first differences you notice are the black faces on the shelves in the latter: Nat Turner. "Slave Nation." Harriet Tubman. "Remembering Slavery." There were 4 million black people in the 11 slave-owning states at the start of the Civil War, and by war's end, 500,000 had fled to the North -- one out of every eight men, women and children -- looking for something, anything, other than the genteel world of the gallant South.

"A lot of people in Richmond are just sort of embarrassed by [the Museum of the Confederacy], particularly when we have this beautiful new American Civil War Center that people are not embarrassed by," says Harry Kollatz Jr., a senior writer at Richmond magazine, who writes regularly about city history.

The real issue, rarely articulated in direct terms, says Gallagher, is race: "our great national bugaboo."

Ah. The haunted past, the uncertain future.

* * *

Rawls is a balding, amiable, energetic graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. He's talking in his office on the second floor of the museum. Windows offer a view of the adjacent balcony of the White House of the Confederacy and the portico from which Jeff Davis's 5-year-old son fell to his death in April 1864.

That's about all you can see.

The three-story White House and four-story museum (only two stories of which are above ground) are surrounded by Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Close-in buildings shoot up 13 and 14 stories. Construction crews, jackhammers, red dust and ambulances dominate the street front.

Inside, Rawls is pointing out how the museum has gone from Old South shrine to a professionally managed museum. It houses more than 15,000 documents and artifacts from the Confederate States of America, the failed nation that white Southerners wanted to make permanent (along with slavery, states' rights and low tariffs).

Opened in 1896 in the Confederate White House, the museum has been a presence in Richmond ever since, even as the city became predominantly black, even as the civil rights era rendered the museum's unabashed cheerleading for the cause obsolete. A new attitude came with the adjacent new building in 1976, built with private donations. Tourism peaked at 91,000 visitors per year in the early 1990s.

But the museum did not conduct a capital campaign for years, and when gate receipts dropped off precipitously (it now averages about 50,000 visitors per year), income plummeted. Previous administrators used the museum's endowment to pay routine operating expenses, the peer review reported, which masked the crisis while worsening the facility's financial health.

The lack of parking and the rising hospital complex aggravated problems. But when the museum began talking to the city about help or potential partnerships, it seemed "arrogant and isolationist. . . . MOC leadership has misjudged its power and leverage with the city and the state," the peer review concluded last October.

Rawls, brought on board in 2004, rolled out a drastic plan to not only move the museum but also pick up the White House and move it, which outraged just about everyone.

Fighting hard for his institution's new image, Rawls wants it made clear that these aren't just neo-Confederates coming to pay homage to Great-Grandpappy So-and-So.

"We get more people from California than we do from Richmond proper," he says. "We get more people from the United Kingdom than all but six U.S. states. All those people aren't coming to look up something about their great-granddaddy."

A couple of years ago, Rawls put an end to the Bonnie Blue Ball, a gala down by the river, for which people dressed up in hoop skirts and antebellum costumes. It was one of the cash-strapped museum's biggest image problems.

"There's a public perception that this is still the home of the 'lost cause,' " he says. "It was founded to be that, yes, but it changed in the 1970s. Look at our record for the past 20 years. We did a special exhibit on slavery back in 1991. It was a Nixon-to-China moment for us, our most popular exhibit ever, and part of a pretty long record of objective and dispassionate display of history."

Rawls was giving this sort of advertising pitch recently at a public meeting in Lexington, a picturesque town of 6,000 about 135 miles away, to which the museum may relocate. He mentioned during the meeting, as proof of its racial bona fides, that the museum had featured Theodore DeLaney, a history professor (who is black) at Washington and Lee University, right there in Lexington, on a panel.

Sitting in the audience, not amused, was Theodore DeLaney.

"It was a miserable experience," he says of his afternoon on the panel, the key part of which turned on the subject of Confederate monuments in city parks. DeLaney posited that black people are Southerners, too, and they might not want such monuments.

People "lined up to chastise me for my views after the discussion," DeLaney recalls. "They didn't line up to talk to the other three speakers. I got tongue-lashed by everyone."

DeLaney, who makes it clear that he is speaking only for himself, thinks the museum presents a divisive image, and he does not want it in Lexington, his home town. He's not alone, but others in town do want the museum as a tourist attraction. After all, supporters say, Lee and Confederate hero Stonewall Jackson are buried there, and Jackson's home is already a museum. This is the predicament Rawls faces: To make the Confederacy museum palatable to the wider world (most of whom are never going to visit), he needs to make visible changes to the museum, either its name or its public image. This would, however, alienate the museum's grass-roots supporters, who don't have the financial wherewithal to sustain the museum on their own.

"Mr. Rawls has lost a lot of support from the heritage community because he has, at least to us, endangered the integrity of the museum itself," says Darryl Starnes, chief of heritage defense for the national chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a position that has him defending the flying of the Confederate flag and the like. "He's talking about removing the name 'Confederate' or stopping flying the flag out front, in order to appease people who don't approve. But the museum is unique."

It isn't at all clear what will happen next.

Rawls is meeting with officials in towns like Lexington (no other possible sites have been made public) who may want to give the museum a new home. Richmond government, tourism and history officials -- Mayor L. Douglas Wilder; Jack Berry Jr., president and CEO of the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau; Charles Bryan, president of the Virginia Historical Society -- all say they want the Confederacy museum to stay.

Bryan thinks the museum's fate is all part of the changing South. A century ago, he points out, nine out of 10 Virginians were born in the state. Today the percentage is about 52 percent, he says, and the new residents don't care as much about the mists of the distant past.

DeLaney agrees. The Old South has been diluted, and the relics of its past, like the Museum of the Confederacy, have lost their mystique.

"Southerners are now Chicanos, they're from the Middle East, they're from the same immigrant groups that have been arriving in the North for 120 years," says DeLaney. "They're Northern whites who want to retire to warmer climes. . . . If white Southerners feel threatened, it's not from blacks. It's from the changing demographics."

It's not, he says, that there's a new antipathy toward the memory of the Confederacy. It's that, to many new Southerners, the Confederacy is irrelevant.

On a recent afternoon, the statue of Stonewall Jackson stands atop his grave, wet and rained upon, in the Lexington Cemetery, a few blocks from the downtown courthouse where the museum wants to relocate.

"Until the day break and the shadows flee away," reads an inscription at the bottom of a nearby Civil War-era tombstone, leaning sideways with the passing of days and days and then more days.

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