New Civil War Museum Takes the Wide View A new $13 million museum in Richmond, Va., allows visitors to learn about the Civil War from the perspective of the Union, the Confederacy, and black people of the time. Housed in a restored gun foundry on the banks of the James River, the museum has received rave reviews from historians.
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New Civil War Museum Takes the Wide View

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New Civil War Museum Takes the Wide View

New Civil War Museum Takes the Wide View

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

If you drive through the South, it doesn't take long to run across a Civil War battlefield or historic site. But explaining that history is getting more difficult. Television and the Internet has changed people's expectations, forcing preservationists to present the past in different ways.

From member station, WETA Eric Niiler reports on a new Civil War museum in Richmond, Virginia, that gives three perspectives on the conflict.

ERIC NIILER: Down by the James River, where slave ships stopped 150 years ago, sit the remnants of a Confederate gun factory. The site has just been reborn as the American Civil War Center. The museum contains a remarkable collection of 19th century artifacts, as well as 21st century multimedia displays. Museum president Alex Wise says the goal is to present the big picture.

Mr. ALEX WISE (Museum President): One of the assets we have in this state is a lot of Civil War history, but there was no place you could go to get a overview. Civil War history was told in pieces.

NIILER: Wise is the former head of Virginia's Office of Historic Preservation. He says museums can no longer just put saddles or uniforms behind a glass case.

Mr. WISE: You've got to give people something they can't get from the History Channel or from a book.

NIILER: The museum is located on the grounds of the former Tredegar Iron Works. Inside there are dozens of flat panel video monitors, big photo banners and a circular movie theater that invites visitors to question what really happened. There's even an American Idol style contest to pick your favorite cause of the Civil War.

(Soundbite of museum piece)

Unidentified Male #1: Or was it simply a fight over money and different cultures?

Unidentified Woman: Was it a conflict over how the new American West would be settled?

Unidentified Male #2: Or was it slavery?

Unidentified Male #1: That's four causes.

Unidentified Male #2: And look, there are four buttons on the panels in front of everyone. I say we put it to a vote.

NIILER: The museum looks at the war from the prospective of Southerners fighting for home, Northerners fighting for Union and slaves fighting for liberty.

Mr. WISE: What were the founding ideals of the country, and how did the Civil War flow out of really disagreements about which of those ideas was primary, which vision of liberty was primary?

NIILER: There are also displays that evoke the war's human toll.

Mr. WISE: We're looking at shackles. We even have a set of children's shackles here, which is pretty shocking when you see them.

NIILER: Wise spent the past decade raising the $13 million needed to build the museum. Many of the artifacts were borrowed from private collectors.

Mr. WISE: My favorite piece here is this flag, which is the reverse of the fifteenth Virginia flag and it has home on it.

NIILER: And then you see the stars, I guess the Confederate states.

Mr. WISE: Yeah.

NIILER: Other artifacts are from reconstruction like a red and white Ku Klux Klan robe that looks like a clown suit. There are also modern day emblems of the Confederacy, including a toy General Lee car from the TV show Dukes of Hazard. So far the museum is a big hit with historians. Roger Davidson teaches African American history at Coppin State University in Baltimore.

Professor ROGER DAVIDSON (Coppin State University): The way that this museum deals with not just the causes of the Civil War or enslavement, but with emancipation and, you know, for a lot of African Americans it will be the first time that they see in a museum African Americans given agency in this cause for freedom.

NIILER: In contrast, the 110-year-old Museum of the Confederacy in downtown Richmond presents the Southern view more traditionally. Executive director Waite Rawls says he emphasizes artifacts, not the conflicting interpretations of the war.

Mr. WAITE RAWLS (Museum of the Confederacy): Some visitors, particularly kids like something a whole lot lighter and easier to understand. The baby boomers tend to be more interested in they want to see the authentic stuff. They do want to come look at the exhibit case and look inside and see Jeb Stuart's hat or Robert E. Lee's uniform.

NIILER: This museum and the adjoining Confederate White House are having financial trouble and may be forced to move or shut down. Coppin State's Davidson says history museums must evolve in order to survive.

Mr. DAVIDSON: With the rise of heritage tourism, as long as the museum offers something new and something different, I think it can survive, and this one does. In time the way that museums present their information has changed.

NIILER: For instance, at the American Civil War Center, visitors leave yellow post it notes on what would have happened if the South had won, and museum officials hope to reach even more people with talks in Atlanta and New York on the legacy of the Civil War.

For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler.

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