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Civil War center, Confederacy museum join forces

Pair will form new entity to advance shared mission

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Museum of the Confederacy to merge with American Civil War Center

Christy Coleman (left) of the American Civil War Center and Waite Rawls of the Museum of the Confederacy, near the museum buildings at Tredegar on Nov. 15, 2013 when The American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy announced that they will increase their collaboration.

The world’s premier collection of Confederate artifacts at the Museum of the Confederacy and the city’s premier waterfront location at the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar are combining in a new Richmond museum.

S. Waite Rawls III, president and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy, and Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center, will be co-leaders of the new organization, whose name will be chosen with guidance from national and local research.

Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a Civil War scholar who sits on the board of both institutions, will be chairman of the combined board.

“I think it’s going to be a great thing for the city, it’s going to be a great thing for people who care about the Civil War and it’s going to be a great thing for people who care about the mission of both institutions, which will be able to be sustained,” Ayers said.

“You have the best collection of Confederate materials in the world and now you’ll have it in a place where they can actually be displayed and esteemed probably more than ever.”

More than $20 million has already been committed to the $30 million project, Coleman said. A new building at Tredegar will have more than 30,000 square feet of space for exhibitions and an experiential theater portraying the fire that destroyed much of the city at the end of the war.

Baskervill, the local architectural firm that’s also developed proposals for a slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom, will present concepts for the Tredegar site in mid-December, Coleman said — “what it looks like and where it fits best on the property without interrupting our views or space for programs.” The goal is to open in fall 2015.

The White House of the Confederacy, at 1201 E. Clay St. — which is part of the Museum of the Confederacy — will continue to tell the story of Jefferson Davis and his family from 1861 to 1865 while he served as president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

Enhanced exhibits on the ground floor of the White House will open in space that’s no longer needed for staff areas and storage. The adjacent Museum of the Confederacy building, which opened in 1976, will retain its gift shop and classrooms, but the exhibit space will be free for other uses.

Discussions are underway with the Virginia Historical Society to preserve and digitize the letters, diaries, books and photographs in the Museum of the Confederacy’s collection through an intellectual property licensing agreement.

The National Park Service visitor center and battlefield orientation will continue in the building it leases at Tredegar.

Shuttles between the sites are a possibility in conjunction with the city or other organizations.

“I think this moves us from trying to survive to trying to excel,” Rawls said.

Attendance at the Museum of the Confederacy slid from a high of 92,000 in the early 1990s to 44,000 in 2010 as perpetual construction and congestion at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center made it hard for visitors to get there. The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has boosted Richmond attendance to 56,000 or more for the past three years, and an expansion to its Appomattox facility in 2012 also brought 30,000 new visitors.

The new Richmond museum will have “the financial resources to display better, display more, display more accessibly,” Rawls said. “The immersion theater will be a major addition. All of that puts us in a position of being the biggest and best with the best technology.”

When he imagines the new facility, Rawls draws inspiration from museum facilities across the state, including his own new building at Appomattox and Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg.

“It’ll have the richness of artifacts of Appomattox,” he said. “It’ll have some of the interactive capabilities of Pamplin” and details from places like the Newseum and the Spy Museum in Washington. The setting on Richmond’s riverfront will contribute to the appeal in a similar way to the Potomac River at Mount Vernon and the mountaintop at Monticello.

The museum’s collection will benefit from state-of-the-art preservation and presentation in the new facility.

“So much is not on display or is displayed in 40-year-old technology,” Rawls said. “You look for anything interactive and you don’t find it. You look for modern exhibit cases and you don’t find it. You look for parking space and you don’t find that either.

“To display this collection and store it and preserve it in much better fashion is fabulous for us.”

The Museum of the Confederacy has about 15,000 items in its collection, Rawls said. It opened in 1896 in the house that had been the Confederacy’s executive mansion during the war. After the collections had been moved into the new museum building, the White House was restored and reopened as a home in 1988. A third museum site at Appomattox opened in 2012.

The Civil War Center has about 3,000 items in its collection, Coleman said. When it opened in 2006, the idea was to be a programmatic institution and not a collecting institution.

“One of the things that struck us hard during this whole Sesquicentennial,” she said, “even though we’ve been able to do some nice programming … we have relied heavily on private donors and other institutional donors, and during the Sesquicentennial, of course, everybody pulled their stuff back. Our exhibits started getting really bare. That’s a disadvantage of being a young institution in an old subject. There’s not a lot left out there for us.”

Richmond’s love-hate relationship with its prominence as capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War has long created divisions on how to tell the story of that period.

The Museum of the Confederacy has focused on the Southern states that seceded during the Civil War. The American Civil War Center has looked at the issues from three perspectives: Northern, Southern and African-American.

Rumors of an enhanced relationship or merger between the Museum of the Confederacy and Civil War Center produced protests from some people in Confederate heritage organizations during the summer.

Members of the Virginia Flaggers group carried Confederate flags several days at the Museum of the Confederacy and wrote blog posts “calling on ALL Confederates to contact the Museum Board” to request that Rawls be removed, that any merger plans be terminated and “that the museum return to its original intent … to perpetuate the honor of the Confederate Soldier by preserving the record of his valor.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans posted a letter from SCV member Lt. Col. Mike Landree, who was serving in Afghanistan, saying that the museum should return artifacts to descendants of families rather than send them to other institutions.

Coleman and Rawls see the mission of the new museum as telling Richmond’s wartime story in all its complexity.

“I think the point is that the American experience was shaped by the Civil War,” Rawls said. “You cannot understand America unless you understand the Civil War. You cannot understand the Civil War unless you understand the Confederacy. So if you’re trying to say what is the American experience, the Confederacy is part of it.”

“I would say it’s giving it the breadth and scope that the war really had,” Coleman said. “This isn’t solely one story or another. This isn’t the co-opting of one story or another. This is our earnest attempt to make sure that the fullness of this is told.

“It’s too important to be one size fits all, or one story fits all, or one story is right and one story is wrong. The naysayers at this point have been saying no because they haven’t fully understood what we were trying to do.”

Focus groups locally and nationally, as well as other research, are being coordinated by Edelman Berland in Washington. The firm will also help with selection of a name.

Response in the groups and in one-on-one conversations with major supporters of each institution has been positive, the museum leaders said.

Rawls said reactions one-on-one have ranged from “it’s about time” to “this will be wonderful for Richmond.”

He sees the change as a natural transition for a museum that began as a shrine to Confederates and developed into a modern educational institution.

“This is just the next step in a 120-year evolutionary process,” he said. “Hopefully that’s what you’re supposed to do rather than stick a fork in the ground and say we’re going to stay like this forever.”

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