Civil War museums evolve to stay relevant
Inside Louisiana’s Civil War Museum, battle flags line the walls. Uniforms, swords and long-barreled guns fill museum cases beside homespun knapsacks, dented canteens and tiny framed pictures of wives that soldiers carried into battle.
In the back, there’s a collection devoted to Jefferson Davis, one-time president of the Confederacy, complete with his top hat and fancy shoes at the spot where his body once lay in state.
It’s all housed in a little red stone building next door to the bigger and much more heavily visited Ogden Museum of Southern Art and near the National World War II Museum. Yet 150 years after the Civil War, the little museum finds itself struggling — like others both in the North and South — to make changes and stay relevant with new generations.
For some museums, that means more displays on African-Americans or exhibits on the roles women played as combatants and spies. For others, it means adding digital maps and electronic displays to attract tech-savvy youth for whom the war holds no memories. Or it may simply mean adopting a wider, more holistic approach to the war — without taking sides.
But it’s not always easy for museums to update their exhibits because of the high costs, curators say. And some would-be visitors’ dollars are kept away by the perception that southern Civil War museums are one-sided — or even racist.
“It’s a challenge on several fronts, one is getting enough money for it,” said John Coski, historian and library director at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. “Most have recognized the need to make the transition to a more modern perspective, but for some that’s a struggle. Especially in the South, there are still strong feelings about some of these museums.”
Louisiana’s museum opened in 1891, then called “Confederate Memorial Hall: The Battle Abbey of the South.” The combative name was dropped in the 1960s and today it’s seeking a “more inclusive, broader” perspective, museum curator Patricia Ricci said. It has been invited to become affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, which will further spur the effort to showcase a more modern interpretation of the war.