A key component to public history is recognizing the power dynamics that control the narrative of history. As Glassberg writes, “a civil-religion approach that emphasizes public history’s role in holding political society together tends to overlook how dissenting voices view experience, the historical visions of minorities, and conflicts over the construction and dissemination of a public history” (13). While collective memory is crucial to public history, historically it’s the memory of privileged communities that’s displayed in museums and public spaces. In recent years the solution has been to build separate institutions devoted to various communities histories and cultures (NMAAHC, NMAI). These spaces give power to collective memories previously silenced in history. But, what about opposing collective memories regarding a singular event? The question then becomes: is it possible to display multiple communities’ disparate memories under one roof? Interestingly, museums devoted to the Civil War that were once separate institutions recently joined under a single umbrella to become one institution. The Museum of the Confederacy (founded in 1896) joined the American Civil War Center at Tredegar (founded in 2006) to offer what public historians hope will be a more unified history experience of the Civil War in Richmond. The Museum of the Confederacy was created at the height of the “Lost Cause” mentality that perpetuated a myth of the South that never was. Preserved by women devoted to the “Lost Cause” it became home to thousands of relics of the Confederacy. Now it’s merged with the American Civil War Center, a site that takes a neutral stance on the Civil War, though firmly states that slavery was the cause of that conflict. Two museums founded with opposing memories and ideologies under one roof. This merger was not met without protests. Confederate heritage organizations protested the joint museum endeavor and called for the executive director’s removal. Despite the protests however, the Museum of the Confederacy and Civil War Center partnership is an interesting example of two different archives, boards of directors, and ideas about history coming together to combat the myths of the Confederacy and to forge a new collective memory of the Civil War in Richmond.
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I’m fascinated by this merger, too! It’s interesting viewing the collective memory in the physical space changing too as the museum(s) shift from shrine to educational spaces – as the museum(s) grow, what type of responsibilities are required to acknowledge and shift the collective memory with the authoritative space presenting it?