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  • The Interpretation Is A-Changin':Memory, Museums, and Public History in Central Virginia
  • James J. Broomall (bio)

In early April 1865, perhaps no city better symbolized the spectacular rise and fall of the Confederacy than Richmond, Virginia. An estimated nine hundred buildings were destroyed by fire. The blackened rubble left in the wake of such destruction transformed massive swaths of the city into little more than charred ruins. Once towering brick structures wilted and assumed ghastly, contorted forms, outlined only by darkened, crumbling walls—the physical embodiment of the Confederacy's destruction.1 So, too, though did Richmond reflect African Americans' remarkable struggle for freedom. In those same early days of April, jubilant crowds of African American men, women, and children greeted Union troops marching into the city. First African and Third Street African Methodist churches, among other sites, overflowed with freed peoples thankful for deliverance and contemplating the future.2 President Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad famously visited the former Confederate capital, stopping at the executive mansion occupied just days earlier by Jefferson Davis. Scenes of celebration clashed with feelings of despair, creating a varied social landscape during a moment of profound change.

The city has been rebuilt, but the conflict is anything but forgotten. And now, the museums and public history sites associated with Virginia's Civil War have the difficult task of conveying the conflicting stories that so decisively shaped the mid-nineteenth century. They do so in a civic atmosphere historically noted for its racial polarization, especially around issues of public memory. Marie Tyler-McGraw has described the conflicts over Richmond's presentation of its Civil War history and the difficulties in settling on a "story of the city that would satisfy both black and white residents."3 These battles exemplify large contests over the Civil War's contested memory and meaning so eloquently explored by Tony Horwitz, W. [End Page 114] Fitzhugh Brundage, and David Goldfield.4 In 1999, the city experienced a public fight over the placement of a mural of Robert E. Lee on a downtown floodwall. In 2003, white supremacists and others protested the construction of a Lincoln statue in the city. Recent sesquicentennial observations have not been marked by similar acrimony, which suggests that public venues and events are offering either less controversial or more persuasive interpretations. Therefore, it is important to ask what history or histories museums are presenting in Richmond and Petersburg.

Central Virginia offers a wide variety of cultural resources, museums, and public history sites, but for the sake of brevity and institutional diversity, this essay focuses on part of the National Park Service's (NPS) Richmond National Battlefield Park; the Museum of the Confederacy, a registered 501(c)(3) and Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, overseen by a private foundation. Because these are different institutional models accountable to contrasting governing bodies, evaluative criteria must be flexible. Therefore, this essay broadly considers how these sites interpret the Civil War era, paying particular attention to how the Civil War is represented. These goals prompt several questions: What narratives describe the conflict? Who are its key actors? What were the war's causes, and what is its continued meaning? My answers are based on personal observation only, as a formalized visitor evaluation (a professional tool used by institutions to gauge their effectiveness) is beyond the scope of this essay. Furthermore, visitors may travel to these sites as hostile critics, empty vessels waiting to be filled, or informed audiences—suggesting wide discrepancy in potential experience.

Currently, American museums average well over 850 million visits per year.5 Although these numbers are inclusive of all types of institutions, the figures demonstrate the public's deep interest in cultural and social resources. History museums and public history sites have become significant purveyors of the past and, for the purposes of this essay, visitors' understanding of the American Civil War. "Learning in museums and similar institutions," Judith Diamond notes, "is called informal learning to differentiate it from the formal learning that occurs in school settings."6 As such, it is largely voluntary and self-directed but also shaped by what content an institution conveys through interpretation...


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