BackStory producer Melissa Gismondi speaks with Stephanie Arduini, the museum’s Director of Education and Programming, about negotiating the politics of Civil War memorabilia at the gift shop.
Joanne Freeman: In 2015, the National Park Service issued a statement asking shops at its sites across the nation to stop selling the Confederate battle flag. The decision came in the weeks after the shooting of nine worshipers at the historic Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Joanne Freeman: The shooter had posted photos online of himself posing with a Confederate flag in front of Confederate landmarks. The statement sparked a broader discussion of whether gift shops should sell any Confederate memorabilia.
Joanne Freeman: To find out how the gift shop at the new American Civil War Museum navigates the politics of these issues, Melissa went to the gift shop and spoke with Stephanie Arduini, Director of Education and Programming at the museum.
Stephanie A.: It’s really interesting about gift shops in museums is that they are a tool for extending a visitor’s experience with us. We do think a lot about not only the business aspect of, what can people buy? What are they looking for? How much are they willing to spend? But also how the products that we have in that shop relate to how we’re telling our stories. That either represent the stories that we’re telling in our exhibits and our programs, or help to extend that learning experience.
Stephanie A.: One thing that speaks to me that’s very different but representative of our new institution is, a shirt that we’re standing right next to, with a picture of Frederick Douglass on it. But instead of just being a picture of Frederick Douglass, it comes in a layered stylized set of colors that looks very contemporary with the way that it’s designed. That’s something that I am really excited about as a young adult because I would buy this and wear it.
Stephanie A.: It looks cool, it looks hip, it also has a picture of a person whose stories people might not be as familiar with, but we definitely wanted to make sure we’re well represented in the new institution.
Melissa G.: Tell me a little bit about the Confederate imagery that will or will not be visible at the gift shop.
Stephanie A.: We stopped carrying the Army of Tennessee Confederate battle flag shortly after the events related to Charleston and Charlottesville over that year. We pulled it pretty quickly and stop selling it in the shop and on our website. We still carry some flags related to specific units, but that traditional battle flag that’s often seen tied to people who use it as a symbol of white supremacy, we’ve had long institutional conversations about what that means and balancing our ability to tell the story of the Confederacy because you can’t tell the story of the Civil War without the Confederacy, with also that idea of feeling like people should be able to honor their ancestors if that’s what they want to, but we don’t want the things that we’re selling to be misappropriated as impulsive hate.
Stephanie A.: For the large flag of the Army of Tennessee battle flag, we pulled that pretty quickly.
Melissa G.: That’s the one that people … when I say the Confederate flag in 2019, it’s the Army of Tennessee?
Stephanie A.: Yeah. The one with the red field and the blue cross or X on that, that you see often associated with the rally in Charlottesville. We also use that moment to think about, where else is that flag on our products? How could this be misappropriated for something hateful? And have thought very carefully about that. Especially when it comes to items that are cheap that kids buy on souvenir field trips, where they’re not really thinking about the full ramifications of what they purchase, they’re just really excited to have five or $10 from mom to spend in a gift shop somewhere on a field trip.
Stephanie A.: We pulled small items that they might have had those battle flags on them and instead tried to find some other products that kids would find interesting and useful and still fit that amount that they could take with them on the field trip, so that they could have that souvenir to take home but wouldn’t risk having a really messy history attached to that.
Melissa G.: What kind of products did you have to pull in addition to just the flag?
Stephanie A.: We pulled some small souvenir items like key chains, shot glasses, even small items of jewelry that had a Confederate battle flag on it. That felt that lacked the context and nuance that we want to convey to people when they come and visit our sites. If something had a Confederate battle flag on it, but it was also contextualized with phrases about the Civil War and an American flag or canons and things like that, that is harder to misappropriate.
Stephanie A.: But for something that might have been a necklace or a bracelet that had a charm on it, or just a key chain of that same kind of Army of Tennessee battle flag on it, we pulled those because that was just … it was too risky for us. We’d rather have something that somebody could have a more nuanced conversation or representation with.
Melissa G.: Can you give me an example? Is there an item here that kind of displays both in that way that you’re talking about?
Stephanie A.: That’s a good question. Let’s go look.
Stephanie A.: We’re standing in front of a wall of shelves with coffee mugs and shot glasses, and there’s a coffee mug here that looks like something you would expect to find at a Civil War gift shop. It’s got a Confederate soldier on a horse holding a Confederate battle flag and a US soldier next to a canon with the US flag. It says, “The Civil War in Virginia.” It’s got the flag. It’s contextualized by being with soldiers on a battlefield. It’s going to be harder for this to be something that you have on a desk and feel like, “Mmh, this guy might have more nefarious intent or hateful intent. This is something that says, “History of the Civil War,” and so we were okay with that.
Melissa G.: That’s on some shot glasses too?
Stephanie A.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Melissa G.: And there’s mugs with Abraham Lincoln. I’m assuming at the Museum of the Confederacy gift shop, I would have been able to buy a mug with Jefferson Davis on it?
Stephanie A.: We had some that had Jefferson Davis’s face on it, here and there. But honestly most people when they were buying a person, an individual, from the … representing the Confederacy, the person people most buy is Robert E. Lee, probably followed by Stonewall Jackson. But you could find Jefferson Davis on some things, but that’s not what most people bought.
Melissa G.: When you were making these decisions and kind of talking about these things, was it very much with the understanding that you wanted the message of the museum to carry through in the gift shop?
Stephanie A.: Yes, it’s absolutely true. We wanted to make sure that folks could explore this new or different interpretation of the Civil War and then have something to take home with them.
Melissa G.: Tell me a little bit about how you guys have tried to use even the purchase of what flags someone’s going to buy as an opportunity to learn more about the history.
Stephanie A.: We have one of the largest collections of Civil War flags in the country, and we know a lot of really rich stories that go with those and the diversity of flags that are out there, especially when it came to individual units, flags and those personal touches that they put on.
Stephanie A.: We were excited to bring some of those flags to the public for sale. What we find really interesting is that sometimes we’ve had people come in and they say, “My ancestor fought for the Confederacy,” for example, and they’d like, “I want to buy a flag to honor my ancestor.” Our staff have been trained to ask questions about, “Well, great, who was your ancestor? Which unit did he fight in?” And start to narrow it down. Instead of coming for just a Confederate battle flag, having a more nuanced conversation about the history itself and often connecting our visitors to a more historically accurate flag, that also could be less offensive to some people who might see that as a symbol of oppression.
Joanne Freeman: That’s Stephanie Arduini with producer Melissa Gismondi, at the American Civil War Museum gift shop in Richmond, Virginia.
Nathan Connolly: Ed, Joanne, you all have the benefit of working on some of the most contentious fields in American history. I got to ask you from your vantage point as basically people living in the 21st century, why are people still debating the Civil War so much?
Joanne Freeman: Well, one point, and it’s a minor one but I think it’s a worthwhile one is, as historians, I think any time that we’re confronting the past, there’s a component of it that feels real and vibrant that we have to reckon with. But I think in a larger way for the public, you have the sort of ancient seeming wars like the Revolution and the War of 1812, which I think that people are very, very far away.
Joanne Freeman: Then you have what probably seem to many people like far more recent wars that seem modern, even World War I, but certainly World War II that people have some way of reckoning with. The Civil War sits at a kind of middle point that is the past and yet is grounded in so many issues that are fundamentally still being reckoned with in the present, that I think it’s a tangled subject for people to deal with.
Ed Ayers: Yeah. It’s precisely because of that tangle, that contentiousness, that I felt drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I resisted it for a long time because the Civil War is associated with sort of kitsch and also with the kind of vibrant buffdom, that seems sometimes to repel scholarly understanding.
Ed Ayers: But I came to believe that if we’re going to understand the United States, we had to sort of walk into the teeth of this and try to see if we could figure it out for ourselves in ways that we could explain to other people. That’s the big challenge. Often I point out that there’s been a book a week written about the Civil War, since the Civil War.
Nathan Connolly: Oh my gosh.
Ed Ayers: Yes, over 54,000 books.
Joanne Freeman: Wow.
Nathan Connolly: I got some reading to do, my goodness. That’s why I devoted part of my life to writing one more. This is such a savvy thing to do.
Ed Ayers: But how can it be that we can know so much and understand so little? For me, that’s been the interesting challenge about … think about the Civil War for the last couple of decades. It seems that everybody has an opinion about it, but those opinions don’t really seem to align with evidence or with what other people think.
Ed Ayers: It’s the place where the rubber really hits the road, I think, in historic understanding of this nation.
Nathan Connolly: Ed, the debate of those 54,000 volumes, I’m sure has some bearing on military history. But the big questions, I’m sure not about whether or not say Robert E. Lee should have tried to take an uphill position over two days at Gettysburg. What seems to be maybe the big arching debate as far as you can see it?
Ed Ayers: What’s discouraging is that the issues of debate today are the same as they’ve been for generation after generation which is, what caused the Civil War? The most recent polls, the most recent polls I’ve seen show … say that, state’s rights is what caused the Civil War. That is sort of blameless that people were fighting for what they thought was right and they were fighting for their rights, but then people say, “Well, it was states’ rights. But then below that it was also what people call economics.”
Ed Ayers: This is somehow … got encoded in our thinking in the early 20th century and refuses to go away, which is that the Civil War was a conflict between an industrial north and an agrarian south. I hear this every time I go out and speak. People just sort of say, “Well, that’s all it really was.” It’s like, what’s agrarian mean.
Joanne Freeman: Right.
Ed Ayers: It means if you’re producing the single most valuable commodity in the world with perpetual bondage, I guess that’s agrarian. It doesn’t really sound like a family farm, which is the way that it often comes out. The north is not really industrial this time. Most of the soldiers fighting each other in the Civil War were farmers on both sides of this. And then the question is, why in the world would an industrial nation dependent upon it’s agrarian half go to war to destroy it?
Ed Ayers: There’s so many evasions and illusions and just sort of willful refusal to look at the evidence because people simply don’t want to acknowledge that slavery was this serpent at the heart of the nation. They’d like to find something that they imagine let’s everybody off the hook.
Joanne Freeman: It makes it so stark in a literal kind of away, bloodless. “Oh, it’s a political conflict. Oh no, it’s an economic conflict. No, it’s a human conflict and it’s about humanity on so many different levels.” Those other sort of cold blooded ways of looking at it, really remove the essence of the conflict itself.
Ed Ayers: Yeah. It strikes me, it’s like a museum exhibit where they’ve roped off all the dangerous parts of the exhibit. “No, don’t go in there. Don’t go into the slavery room,” because that’s just too scary to think about.
Ed Ayers: I’ve wondered why it can be that … and this is not simply divided Northerners and Southerners disagreeing, there’s not really much difference in this 40% of people who think it’s the state’s rights cause between the north and the south. Westerners are pretty certain that it’s slavery, but Northerners and Southerners today … and young people believe it as much as older people. It’s not that we’re making progress and explaining to people how this is.
Ed Ayers: I’ve tried to figure this out. One thing that occurs to me is that people who are cynical about the north, from looking at it today, find it hard to imagine that there was ever a time when there was enough moral purpose in the United States to go to war to end slavery, and –
Nathan Connolly: That’s interesting.
Ed Ayers: Of course they’re right in that sense. Joanne, I’d be curious when you’re out on the hustings and you’re talking about a book about, The Coming of the Civil War, how do you avoid going into these cul-de-sacs of explanation where doesn’t seem to be any way out of them?
Joanne Freeman: Well, speaking as an early national historian who sort of got sucked into the Civil War vortex, a lot of what I’m talking about is the deeper roots of that later period. A lot of what I’m talking about is, it really does go back to the founding. It really does go back to the writing into the constitution of slavery, and the way in which the nation had to reckon with that, and the many reasons why in the 1830s that becomes more of an issue.
Joanne Freeman: It isn’t … I think the Revolution and the Civil War, speaking as someone who’s written about the Revolution, people see them I think often, as these little isolated bubble moments. Of course their meaning is wrapped up in the very fact that they aren’t those kinds of moments.
Joanne Freeman: I think for me in talking about the Civil War, I’m always looking back deeper and deeper into the roots of where that comes from, and as a political historian, I’m interested in seeing how that gets sort of institutionalized. How does it become so difficult to dig up those roots?
Ed Ayers: That’s the tricky thing. Those roots are deep and real, and yet people on the very cusp of the war didn’t believe that it could happen. You have this kind of unpredictable events leading to the very concrete series of sort of coincidences and events that bring on the war at the same time that we know that the origins lie deep in American past.
Ed Ayers: The trick is not to have it be all sort of industrial and agrarian, those roots are there, on the other hand not to be, “Well, if they hadn’t tried to resupply Fort Sumter, there wouldn’t have been a Civil War.” This is sort of thing that I hear all the time.
Ed Ayers: To your question, Nathan, as a historical problem, it really does combine sort of the intrinsic challenges of our discipline in a really concrete and unavoidable way. I guess I have a question for you.
Ed Ayers: Looking at it from the imperial distance of the 20th and 21st centuries, what does it seem to matter to you as you try to wrestle with the problems of your own period? What does it matter that we get right about the Civil War?
Nathan Connolly: I think there are extraordinarily powerful iconic objects and images and themes that come out of the 19th century. As a 20th century person, a specialist in that century, you’re almost in a way beholden to, deferring to, the 19th century people as like the real US historians. And by extension, the landscape of that memory around the 19th century is almost as too powerful to ignore and not have a certain kind of deference to.
Nathan Connolly: What I mean by that is, when I was coming up as a student in middle school and high school, watching … say the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, that was an aesthetically beautiful rendering of the past regardless of what you might think about its historical content or the narration or the music, that there was something about that particular image of the past that was so romantic.
Nathan Connolly: I remember plagiarizing lines from love letters to my girlfriend at the time, try to make it seem like I was especially poetic. No, it’s terrible. It’s absolutely terrible. But combine that with the power of monuments around the country, combine that with the kind of lure of objects, say a Sabre behind the glass, or even say the Confederate battle flag in an image of massive resistors pushing back against school desegregation in the south.
Nathan Connolly: Regardless of the politics, the image itself is aesthetically powerful. As a 20th century person, I feel part of my burden or challenge or unique obligation frankly, is being able to wrestle with that afterlife of the Civil War and figure out to what extent there are fictions or facts kind of mired in the way that we’re supposed to frame the events that are unfolding in the Civil War shadow.
Joanne Freeman: The emotion and the other ways in which contemporary meanings get invested in that event, speaking as a woman, the Civil War was not on my radar screen in any way. It felt to me like a male thing even before I was a historian. It was a place where guys talked about battles. It was a place … it was a male thing. I don’t think I had any perception that it was more than soldiers fighting and men talking about soldiers fighting. It didn’t even as a younger person, make it onto my sort of my radar of my understanding of American history. It was just the violent middle part that I somehow didn’t feel like I was a part of.
Ed Ayers: I shouldn’t admit this, but growing up as a white Southerner, I couldn’t have cared less about the Civil War. Partly because we were raised on TV shows and movies about World War II, and so your Ken Burns, Nathan, was in many ways my battlefield, my World War II show.
Ed Ayers: Then I go to graduate school in the wake of Vietnam in which, Joanne, what you’re talking about is that not only was it gendered, but it was also generation. No, we don’t really talk about that military history stuff. I rejected it for a long time, but it’s the very thing that Nathan’s talking about just recognizing the gravitational pull it exerts on everything else that happened before and after, really, that made me decide that you had to go face it.
Ed Ayers: You talked about the artifacts, Nathan, I think that’s one reason the museum isn’t especially volatile, dangerous and important place to have these things. If you read surveys Americans say … and this kind of hurts our feelings a little bit, that they trust museums more than any other institutions to explain the past. It’s something about the reality of the artifact, you can’t argue. Yup?
Nathan Connolly: Right.
Ed Ayers: Those are the spurs. As Christy and our friends have crafted the American Civil War Museum … and they do have the largest collection of Civil War artifacts in private hands in the world, coming from the Museum of the Confederacy, so we have the things like Lee’s Tint, things that are very palpable.
Ed Ayers: How do you orchestrate those to tell a story that is both compelling because if it’s concrete manifestations but also has some of the gravitas? That’s not just the stuff on the battlefield, not just one more sword, but how do you make it tell a story that swept up the entire nation?
Joanne Freeman: The thing about artifacts too is, depending on the artifact, they can have such a palpable power that … just as you’re suggesting Ed, you don’t always need words for that story to be told. For example, I was just working on something and we were reckoning with, how to talk about slavery in early America and actually in the Caribbean in the late 18th century, and we decided that we would get shackles to put … one of the first things you’ll confront would be these shackles, adult shackles and child shackles.
Joanne Freeman: There was a debate about how to present them. One person was talking about possibly, what kind of label, what kind of words could explain them? And we ultimately decided there would be no words, because there’s nothing more powerful than walking in and being standing in front of that, particularly these little shackles for a child, you don’t need words to tell that story, that’s going to smack you in the face when you see it.
Joanne Freeman: But there’s such a power. This is part of what for me has always been the fun about working with museums. There’s such a power in things that sometimes can grab you at a level that is almost beyond words.
Ed Ayers: Yeah. It was interesting the struggles we had going over all the labels for this museum and knowing we can have no more than 150 words to describe anything and realizing the power of every single word to try to get it right, at the same time recognizing that the average amount of time that someone spends in front of a museum exhibit is 20 seconds –
Nathan Connolly: Right.
Ed Ayers: How do you have this visceral power and yet it has to be sort of orchestrated into an emotional journey? This museum, the American Civil War Museum, is very consciously laid out to strike different emotions at different times, and recognizing that you basically can’t feel that strongest emotion all the time.
Ed Ayers: How do you look at the exhibit about the Treatment of the Wounded, and then about The Moment of Emancipation, and about The Tactics on the Battlefield, how do you weave those together in a way that makes sense. I’m glad we had museum professionals who have a lot better idea of how to do this than just somebody who deals with words knows.
Joanne Freeman: That’s all for us today, but please keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. We’re at backstoryradio.org. Or send an email to, email@example.com. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter at BackStory Radio.
Joanne Freeman: Special thanks this week to the Johns Hopkins Studios in Baltimore.
Ed Ayers: BackStory’s produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the executive vice president and provost at the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.
Ed Ayers: This episode was also produced with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation helping Virginia Humanities and BackStory change the narrative of race and representation.
Nathan Connolly: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University.
Nathan Connolly: BackStory was created by Andrew Windham for Virginia Humanities.