A New Vision

Ed speaks to Christy Coleman the Chief Executive Officer of the new museum about the challenges of explaining the Civil War to 21st century visitors.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

Speaker 1: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Robert and Joseph Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Nathan Connolly: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory. Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Nathan Connolly.

Joanne Freeman: I’m Joanne Freeman.

Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers.

Joanne Freeman: If you’re new to the podcast, we’re historians, and each week along with our cohost Brian Balogh, we explore the history of a topic that’s been in the news.

Ed Ayers: Normally this is when we take you back to a moment in history, but this week we’re talking about something that’s happening right now. On May 4th, the brand new American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia, opens to the public. For full disclosure, I should add that I’m the founding chairman of the museum’s board.

Nathan Connolly: A merger of several historic sites including the former Museum of the Confederacy, the American Civil War Museum is hoping to present a new narrative of the conflict that’s diverse, inclusive, and balanced.

Cathy Wright: This painting is known as, The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson.

Nathan Connolly: That’s Cathy Wright. She’s a curator at the American Civil War Museum and a former curator at the Museum of the Confederacy. She spoke to BackStory producer, Melissa Gismondi, at the museum.

Cathy Wright: What we’re seeing are Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, two of the most revered confederate military commanders on horseback, meeting before the Battle of Chancellorsville. This is the battle of which Jackson would be mortally wounded. Prints of this painting were made and were owned by many white Southerners in the Post-war period. This is a very recognizable image to many people.

Nathan Connolly: Cathy says the painting, which is 12 feet high and eight feet wide, is one of the largest items in the museum’s collection, which can make it hard to curate.

Cathy Wright: It sort of dominates the space, and we wanted to provide some balance to that.

Nathan Connolly: The museum aim to do that by displaying the painting alongside texts of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution. They also chose to display it alongside a carefully curated image.

Cathy Wright: On the wall immediately facing the painting, is a very large colorized photograph of African American legislators from Virginia in 1870s. These men are shown larger than life size. It’s a group of eight men and it’s really striking to see that photo in color at that scale and I think really helps to bring together a lot of the themes which we’re trying to cover in this space.

Nathan Connolly: You’ll hear more from Melissa’s tour of the museum’s exhibits with Cathy later in the show.

Joanne Freeman: Although the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, it’s iconography, history and message are invoked almost daily. Events like the 2015 massacre at the historic Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, and the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville have sparked a debate about how the war should be represented in public spaces.

Ed Ayers: On this episode, we’re giving you an exclusive behind the scenes look at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond. We’ll bring you a feature conversation I had with Christy Coleman, the museum’s director. She is no stranger to controversy and she believes that museums have the power to change the world.

Joanne Freeman: We’ll look at the gift shop and ask, “How does the museum negotiate the politics of Civil War memorabilia?”

Ed Ayers: Christy Coleman is one of the most extraordinary museum curators in the country. As an African American woman tasked with creating a new museum of the Civil War, she needs vision and diplomatic skills aplenty.

Ed Ayers: She told me she had a very early, very visceral immersion in Southern history.

Ed Ayers: At Colonial Williamsburg [crosstalk 00:04:19]?

Christy Coleman: It was at Colonial Williamsburg, yeah. As a summer job, as a character interpreter is what they were called, and it was portraying a person of the past.

Christy Coleman: Her name was Rebecca. She was an enslaved young woman about my age. They had to create, they had to find somebody for me. She was the property of John Blair. The premise behind her story was that he was sick and dying and it was creating anxiety because young Rebecca didn’t know what was going to happen to her if he died.

Ed Ayers: Wow. That’s pretty heavy debut as an acting role.

Christy Coleman: It was. It was. I did the summers, went away, worked at another museum, came back to Colonial Williamsburg and eventually became director of African American Interpretations and Presentations.

Christy Coleman: One of the first actions in that role was the decision to reenact an estate sale, which included the sale of slaves.

Ed Ayers: Wow.

Christy Coleman: That’s the first time I was thrust into the public, and the public relations and media spotlight. Colonial Williamsburg decided that I should be the face of this thing.

Ed Ayers: That was very controversial at the outset, but it seemed that in some ways you brought people along to understand why this would be a helpful scene.

Christy Coleman: Absolutely. It was an extraordinarily important moment, even though there was so much anxiety going into it, lots of controversy. People felt, “This isn’t appropriate to do in a museum setting and particular at Colonial Williamsburg,” or whatever, but what it did in the post days of that is that I received letters from academics around the nation, around the world, really.

Christy Coleman: Other museum colleagues, particularly those at historic houses and plantation sites contacted me and said, “If they can do that, we at least need to have an honest conversation about the enslaved populations at our sites.” That began what I think was sort of the birth of us finally knowing the stories about Hemings and the other 300 plus people that were in Monticello, and then learning about the 300 plus people that were in Mount Vernon, and so forth and so on.

Christy Coleman: That was the moment because –

Ed Ayers: When was that moment?

Christy Coleman: 1994 which is ridiculous, 25 years ago, but that was the moment.

Ed Ayers: There aren’t many topics in American history that are still as contentious as the Civil War. What were the issues that Christy and her staff faced creating this new institution?

Christy Coleman: We had to completely reimagine the meaning of the war. We had to start there. And then from that it’s like, “Okay, well if you’re imagining the meaning of it, why it matters in contemporary life, then that means you really have to examine it the way that people lived it.” We started saying, “Okay, well how did they live it?” And then it was like, “Well, they lived in constant chaos. There was always changing choices. There was never knowing what was going to happen around the next corner. There was this period for some of, is this my moment? Is Freedom coming? For others there was just the basic question of, where should my allegiance lie?”

Christy Coleman: We also quickly realized that this conflict impacted native nations. While it wasn’t a global crisis, it had global impact because of the trades. We acknowledged that, if we’re thinking about this as constant chaos and death and destruction at a scale that had never been seen before, that you’re also dealing with trauma, it is a high emotion thing. How do you tell that story in an impactful way? And so it meant to me that it could no longer be a story that was just fixated on the military or the political. It had to intertwine again, the way that people lived it.

Christy Coleman: That meant there was this constant flow of impact. Something that’s happening in the society is going to affect a military action. Something that the politicians do is going to end up impacting what happens on the battlefield. What the community is rallying against or rallying for is going to impact political action. All of these factors are constantly in play, and people are changing their minds constantly about their support for the war or its aims and so forth.

Christy Coleman: Creating that kind of fractious environment actually became sort of a visual vernacular for us.

Ed Ayers: In many ways, what you’re trying to do is tell the story both on a global and a personal scale at the same time?

Christy Coleman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ed Ayers: It’s not that we’re not telling the stories of military history and political history, but we’re weaving them together into the stories of abandonment, and of death on a battlefield, and of homesickness, and of political conflict. How is a museum the place that that story can be told in a way it can’t be told anywhere else?

Christy Coleman: Well, every time Pew Research Center does a study on trusted institutions, museums always rank number two behind libraries, which means that’s a tremendous amount of power and importance to help communities navigate.

Ed Ayers: Yeah.

Christy Coleman: I tell people all the time, history has never ever been for the dead, it is about our lived experience, it is about our environment. Museums have the capacity through its collections, through its storytelling, strength to help people make sense of the past and make that usable because we use a variety of learning techniques, whether it is the text on the wall that can never be too much, whether it’s the visual image that has an emotional impact, whether it is the artifact, there’s something about the real thing that people really relate to –

Ed Ayers: [crosstalk 00:10:34] –

Christy Coleman: And we have a ton of the real thing that when they see it, it brings even more truth. I think that those … sort of that center, that vision, that understanding, is what helps us be successful and has enabled us to really re-examine every single program and event that we’ve done through that lens.

Ed Ayers: What’s this new building like? What were its priorities?

Christy Coleman: Well, the priority certainly was be mindful of the historic fabric of the site. There were original buildings here and there were industrial artifacts buried in the ground. We have tunnels and canals and all kinds of things that dot this nine acre site.

Ed Ayers: Yeah. This was one of the largest industrial sites in the United States at the time.

Christy Coleman: Absolutely. We were also concerned what we would find when we started digging.

Ed Ayers: You’ve invested so much in this for so long now you’re waiting just days until the world shows up. What do you want them to take away from this experience?

Christy Coleman: I want them to be odd and inspired. You look, this thing is beautiful. It’s beautiful, it’s impactful. From the moment you walk through the doors of the new building you know you’re in some place different because immediately you see the honoring of the past. Because we built this building around a ruin of the original foundry here.

Ed Ayers: What if you’re a relatively recent arrival to America, you don’t really feel any investment in this stroke, why in the world would you come to the American Civil War Museum?

Christy Coleman: Because as soon as you walk through the door, not only would you potentially see people of your ancestral ethnic group but you would also immediately begin to understand just how much this particular conflict and its aftermath impacts American life. You will begin to recognize whether it’s ideologies, whether it is the way, sort of American culture, particularly political and social culture evolves, you will see it. It will be very apparent to you.

Christy Coleman: Anyone that wants to understand America and who and what she is, will get a glimpse of that because of this conflict. Let’s not forget the American Civil War was an attempt at a birth of a new freedom, but it is the saving of a republic, it is the saving of an idea and that I think is inescapable.

Ed Ayers: I was talking with Christy Coleman, the chief executive officer of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, which opens its doors to the public this week.