Since the night Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 18 years ago, the Confederate Museum in Alexandria has been closed to all but a few.

On that night, April 4, 1968, the museum's owners, fearing violence, shut the doors to the red brick mansion.

The sign was taken inside, and except for a brief period since then, the museum has been closed to all but those who make a special appointment.

Now city officials are trying to reopen the doors to the public, but they are running into some unexpected resistance.

"I'm not going to talk about it," said Bessie Nutt, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy's Alexandria chapter, which owns the museum. "There are a number of things that make it difficult to open and it's a private collection anyway. I look on it in the same manner as inviting people into my home."

"We haven't been very public," agreed Carolyn Colenda, president of the Alexandria chapter. "There are a number of problems: the staircase isn't very sturdy, and who would run it?"

The private museum at 806 Prince St. is bursting with Confederate mementos: a $200 check written to Robert E. Lee, tattered rebel uniforms and numerous original Civil War battle flags.

"It should be open immediately," said Ben Brenman, a member of the Alexandria Historic Resources Commission.

" . . . Our docents would help them and so would other city museums. I would help, and so would hundreds in the city."

The commission will discuss the museum at its meeting Thursday.

Visitors should be able to glimpse the remnants of the Confederate past, the city officials say, partly because the museum enjoys special tax status.

Because the museum has been declared tax-exempt under Virginia law, the UDC chapter pays about $1,500 a year in real estate taxes on the rooms that are rented to roomers.

That's about $4,000 less than the owners of a similar taxable building in Old Town would pay. It is a disparity that troubles Alexandria's Boston-born Mayor James P. Moran Jr.

"If the taxpayers pay $4,000 a year for it, I think it should be open," he said. "I've never been inside it, but I've noticed it many times, and I've noticed it on the tax-exempt list."

Brenman said he remembers the museum from its days as a grand, frequently visited place.

"I used to go in there to see correspondence signed by General [Robert E.] Lee and the real uniforms worn in battle," he said. "I was sorry to see it closed and I resent that it remains closed."

Colenda appears caught amid the conflicting desires and fears of the 43 members of her group. As she took a reporter through the museum last week, she said that if other organizations help, maybe the collection of Civil War papers, pistols, photographs and autographs, could be open to the public regularly. But then she worried about protecting some members' wishes to leave well enough alone.

The first Saturday of each month the UDC chapter gathers in a first-floor meeting room. There, in a spacious room with 20-foot-high ceilings, 11 Confederate flags and larger-than-life paintings of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, the women salute the United States flag and the Confederate flag, listen to historians and other speakers, and sing "Dixie."

According to the groups' bylaws, the members, who must document their ancestral connection to Confederate veterans, pledge to honor those who fought in the Civil War, protect historic Confederate places and assist veterans' descendants.

"It was the only war fought entirely on home ground," said Nutt, who like other members, knows Southern battles, leaders and dates, as others know soap operas. "I grew up in Kansas and thought Lincoln was the father of our country until I moved to Virginia."

Oscar Fitzgerald, the president of the Alexandria Historic Resources Commission, said it is time to reopen the UDC treasure.

"Whether it's open or closed," said Fitzgerald, who is also the director of the Navy Memorial Museum at the Washington Navy Yard, "people won't forget about the Civil War. But the bottom line is it's an interesting place and it's a shame not to see it."