Monday, November 18, 2013

Museum Merger: Museum of the Confederacy and American Civil War Center

Yesterday brought some big news in Richmond. The Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar plan to merge and create a new, $30 million museum at Tredegar Iron Works. S. Waite Rawls III, president and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy, and Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center, will co-lead the new organization, which has no name as of yet. Civil War scholar and University of Richmond President Ed Ayers sits on the board of both organizations and will serve as the first chairman of the combined board. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, more than two-thirds of the money for the new 30,000 square foot museum has already been committed. 

This merger, which is bound to draw its fair share of controversy, comes after the Museum of the Confederacy has faced a number of challenges in recent years. The museum's attendance has declined from around 90,000 in the mid-90s to about 40-50,000 today. The constant congestion and construction resulting from the expansion of its neighbor, the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, has made visiting the museum difficult. After the merger, The Confederate White House, part of the Museum of the Confederacy complex, will remain open at its present site.

I find a ton of great possibilities with this merger. Ayers was quoted in the Times-Dispatch article as saying:
I think it’s going to be a great thing for the city, it’s going to be a great thing for people who care about the Civil War and it’s going to be a great thing for people who care about the mission of both institutions, which will be able to be sustained. You have the best collection of Confederate materials in the world and now you’ll have it in a place where they can actually be displayed and esteemed probably more than ever.

Since the 1990s, the Museum of the Confederacy has made strides to break out of its "Lost Cause" roots and tell a more complete picture of the Confederacy, and to interpret slavery. Teaming with an institution whose mission is to "tell the whole story of the conflict that still shapes our nation" can only further that process. Creating a new organization on firm financial footing and with the space and resources to best utilize the Museum of the Confederacy's excellent collection should be great for Richmond. Yet I will find it interesting to see how this merger works out. These types of moves rarely work out seamlessly. When two organizations with separate visions and with separate constituencies merge, there will also be conflict. Personally, I am intrigued to see how well "co-leadership" will work out.

I am rooting for this project's success, and I applaud the leaders of both organizations for attempting this bold step. I look forward to visiting the new museum when it is completed. If you would like to read more about the merger, you can find articles here and here. There has also been coverage on other Civil War blogs, notably from Kevin Levin and Emmanuel Dabney.

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