1 of 5
Illustration by Timothy Cook
2 of 5
Photo courtesy of Baskervill Architects
Architectural plans include a new two-story building containing exhibits, a café, a theater and offices.
3 of 5
Photo courtesy of Baskervill Architects
The footprint of the proposed expansion
4 of 5
Photo courtesy of Baskervill Architects
An interior rendering of the foundry building
5 of 5
Photo courtesy of Baskervill Architects
An open plaza outside the museum
The Museum of the Confederacy traces its origin to the women who banded together in 1866 to tend still-fresh Confederate graves in Hollywood Cemetery.
The American Civil War Center, a paean to an enlightened view of the Civil War derived from multiple perspectives, got its start approximately 140 years later, opening on the site of the historic Tredegar Iron Works in 2006, though organizing efforts had been underway years before then.
Despite the region’s strategic and geographic role in the Civil War, local history boosters have struggled with how best to draw people to that story. As two museums merge to create the American Civil War Museum, their organizers face the challenge of how to reconcile differing approaches to the same chapter of American history.
The two institutions merged in late 2013, on paper, but they will merge in a physical reality about two years from now, when a new contemporary exhibition building is projected to open.
The expansion will add about 40,000 square feet of space at the existing 9-acre campus and provide a fresh take on what a Civil War museum should look like in the 21st century.
In late August, Richmond-based architecture firm Baskervill released a series of renderings offering a conceptual view of the new building. All parties emphasize that the riverside museum complex — which will morph into a somewhat L-shaped campus — is still a work in progress, just like evolving interpretations of the Civil War itself.
In terms of collections, the Museum of the Confederacy clearly has the edge, with the world’s largest and most extensive compendium of Confederate Civil War artifacts: some 15,000 objects, including diaries, swords, firearms, flags, buttons and homemade soap.
The military hat of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart is there, for example, as is the sword that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wore when he traveled to Appomattox to surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The sword, made in France, is engraved with the words, “Aide toi et dieu t’aidera.” That translates to “Help yourself and God will help you.”
Those collections eventually will be moved to the new museum building, perhaps in the July 2016 time frame in which construction is expected to be complete. They will join 3,000 or so items held by the American Civil War Center. Each institution will retain ownership of its collections.
Robert Hancock, the chief curator and director of collections at the Museum of the Confederacy, has said the new museum’s space and facilities will not only provide a higher level of care for the Confederate artifacts, but also will enable more objects to be displayed. The exhibition space will more than double from 6,000 square feet to 14,000.
Geographically, moving artifacts from the Museum of the Confederacy to the current American Civil War Center would be a trip of only a mile and a half. But some would argue that, in terms of their philosophical origins, the distance is far greater. They might as well be in in different time zones.
When the two institutions come together, will the conjunction symbolize reconciliation between competing visions?
“I’m not in that business,” replies Christy Coleman, former president of the American Civil War Center and co-CEO of the new entity, speaking with the authority of a Marine drill sergeant. “I’m in the museum business.”
So what does this merger mean?
“It’s a smart-ass business decision,” Coleman says.
The cost of the new American Civil War Museum building is an estimated $11 million. However, exhibitions, collections preservation and renovations of other facilities bring the entire project total to $35 million, which does not include cash reserves, according to Patrick Saylor, director of public relations and marketing for the American Civil War Museum. As of mid-summer, approximately $21 million was in hand.
Countless eyes will be on the project as the museum tries, like many have before, to interpret the meaning of the bloody conflict that took the lives of 600,000 soldiers, ravaged the lives of millions and freed millions of others held in bondage. The new museum must pull in as many paying customers as possible. Trumping all else, the business model has to work.
In recent years, that hadn’t been working very well for either institution. The recession at the end of the last decade came down like a hammer, their leaders say. Visitation declined, and donations dropped. Paid admissions at the Museum of the Confederacy, which peaked at 91,000 visitors in 1991, have averaged 53,000 visitors per year during the past five years, with the Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox adding 35,000 annually, Saylor says.
The Civil War Center averages 25,000 paid visitors per year, and more than 10,000 schoolchildren are admitted free of charge annually. In 2009-10, in response to declining attendance and donations, the center cut its payroll budget by 30 percent and instituted austerity measures, Coleman says.
Both the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center have increasingly become dependent on “earned revenue,” meaning most bills must be paid with the proceeds of admissions and gift shop sales, as grants and state and national support for the museums have declined.
There are other problems. The growth of Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical campus is choking the Museum of the Confederacy, making the search for a parking space, for example, a battle in itself for many visitors, even with free spaces in VCU’s nearby deck.
Meanwhile, the American Civil War Center seems threadbare, because it depends on other institutions and private donors to provide it with the historic objects that it needs to help tell its stories.
Coleman says the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War caused many institutions and donors to pull back their loaned items for use in their own venues as they marked the war’s 150th anniversary.
Together, each institution will benefit from consolidation: more space in a historic setting for the Museum of the Confederacy, more artifacts for the American Civil War Center.
No one is saying that this is a do-or-die moment for either institution, but many pieces have to come together — not the least of which are the nuanced interpretations covering the Confederacy, the Union, African-Americans, women, and the war’s causes and outcomes.
David Winslow, project manager for the proposed North Carolina Civil War History Center in Fayetteville, which is still in its fundraising and planning stages, says he is familiar with both the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center and has visited each of them.
“I think it’s great what they’re doing,” says Winslow, a consultant whose specialty is fundraising for museums. “The American Civil War Center is a very nice place, but it clearly has struggled. The Museum of the Confederacy has struggled, too.”
Winslow’s judgment is that, together, Richmond’s two Civil War institutions have the opportunity to become far better, perhaps in ways neither yet realizes.
“It’s a bold move and not without risk,” he says. “Whenever you’re combining two institutions, it always is.”
Christy Coleman is familiar with risk.
In 1994, she made national headlines when, as director of African-American interpretation and presentations at Colonial Williamsburg, Coleman led and participated in the living-history museum’s first slave auction.
Coleman, who is African-American, portrayed a pregnant slave who was sold away from her husband. Critics were shrill on both sides, with some — both black and white — calling the reenactment nothing more than a painful trivialization. Other observers praised its boldness and courage.
In a joint statement, the national office and the Virginia chapter of the NAACP denounced the auction and said Colonial Williamsburg was “glorifying the horrors and humiliation of the evils of slavery.” All the publicity seemed to have a least one salutary effect: An estimated 2,000 people showed up for the reenactment.
Jet, a weekly publication aimed at an African-American audience, reported on both the event and Coleman’s appearance on NBC’s Today show in its aftermath. According to the magazine, Coleman said that the reenactment was intended to remind people how African-Americans were treated once they arrived in the colonies. “[Colonial Williamsburg’s] visitors come here, and they learn things that they did not learn in their history books, because they’ve been omitted,” she told the magazine.
Coleman stayed with Colonial Williamsburg in various leadership positions through 1999, when she was named president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the largest museum in the country devoted to the African-American experience.
She left that position in 2005, after leading a $43 million fundraising campaign, of which 85 percent was raised in the first three years. Coleman also increased the museum’s membership from 1,500 to more than 3,500, but the museum still struggled to survive, according to press accounts. It drew support from private donors and corporations, as well as the City of Detroit, which later went into a tailspin and declared bankruptcy. At the time of her resignation, Coleman told the Detroit Free Press that she was simply leaving for personal reasons: She was 4 1/2 months pregnant with her second child.
Just prior to her appointment as president of the American Civil War Center in 2008, Coleman served as vice president of Arts Consulting Group, a national agency that provides a wide range of services to arts and cultural groups. She holds both bachelor and master’s degrees in museum studies from Hampton University.
In a recent interview, Coleman described any problems arising during merger discussions between the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center as “hiccups.”
“There are personalities and all that,” she says, “and in terms of constituencies, it’s an interesting dynamic.”
Coleman says each institution wanted to be transparent with the other institution’s constituency about its operations and how a combined entity might function. “You [want] to address those elephants in the room. You can’t ignore them,” Coleman says. Just as some supporters of the Museum of the Confederacy vehemently opposed consolidation — fearing dilution of the Confederacy’s point of view — Coleman says some supporters of the Civil War Center didn’t like it, either.
“The greatest concern was whether the balance we were known for, of exploring the war from different perspectives, was still going to be there, or whether the story was going to become ‘Confederate Lite,’ ” Coleman says.
Although there will be those who disagree with her, Coleman says the fact is that the Museum of the Confederacy is a museum devoted to teaching people about the Confederacy. “It is not for Confederate memory,” she says, differentiating it from groups that glorify the South and its “Lost Cause” of defending slavery along with the principle of states’ rights.
From a business standpoint, Coleman says corporate donors and others with whom she has talked are delighted with the consolidation, because they won’t have to split their dollars between two Civil War institutions in the same city.
The Tredegar site already has some big hitters on its roster. During the center’s most recent capital campaign, for example, the co-chairs included Thomas F. Farrell, chairman, president and CEO of Dominion; John A. Luke, chairman and CEO of MeadWestvaco; and Bruce Gottwald, chairman of NewMarket Corp.
Gottwald’s company originally acquired and preserved Tredegar, and NewMarket Corp. now owns the property on which the Civil War Center sits. Gottwald also is a former board member of the Museum of the Confederacy and began talking about moving that museum to the Tredegar site 20 years ago, says Waite Rawls, longtime president and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy.
Coleman argues that consolidation makes sense not only from a business standpoint, but also from the standpoint of tourism. With both the Museum of the Confederacy and the Civil War Center drawing between 60 percent and 80 percent of their visitors from outside Virginia, a one-stop Civil War museum is less confusing, Coleman says.
Besides, she says, the National Park Service’s Richmond National Battlefield Visitor Center is at Tredegar. It’s there that visitors can get information about battlefields, battlefield tours and Civil War cemeteries.
“In the minds of some, ‘It’s all Civil War to me,’ ” Coleman says, expressing a sentiment she’s heard from more than one visitor.
To clear his mind, Waite Rawls will often walk out of the Museum of the Confederacy and linger next door at the place where Confederate President Jefferson Davis spent the war, the White House of the Confederacy. Rawls will pick weeds out of the rose garden while he’s having a cigarette.
This is Rawls’ 10th year leading the museum, and if he ever had a true honeymoon period, it would be hard to find it in the records. There’s even a Facebook page devoted to his removal — he’s accused of being too politically correct when it comes to the Confederacy.
In 2005, a year after he took the helm of the museum, half a dozen board members resigned, amid criticism of Rawls for everything from misstating budget figures to failing to raise money.
Rawls is a graduate of Virginia Military Institute and holds an MBA and law degree from the University of Virginia. He spent three decades in the banking and investment industry in New York and Chicago, and has worked on fundraising campaigns for various institutions, including both of his alma maters, the University of Virginia and Virginia Military Institute.
For years, Rawls has contended with sliding attendance numbers, waning public support — the state of Virginia was once a significant contributor — and a slippery slope of emotions that surrounds the Museum of the Confederacy and its role in modern life.
The creation of the American Civil War Museum has enraged some of those who have strong sentiments for the Museum of the Confederacy. “It’s a deliberate part of an overall plan to totally eradicate our Confederate heritage,” Frank Earnest says, as loudly as he can, over a cell phone.
Earnest is commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, part of the hierarchy of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The SCV began in Richmond in 1896 to remember Confederate soldiers and to preserve the history of the Confederacy. Speaking from the SCV’s national convention this summer, Earnest warned that the sons were prepared “to go to war” to try to prevent the Museum of the Confederacy from following through with the consolidation.
“We’ve got Confederate descendants from all over saying if it can be stopped, it will be stopped. The museum is the record of our heritage. It’s the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress for the Confederacy.”
Another opponent of the move, Barry Isenhour of the Virginia Flaggers, a group that has unfurled giant Confederate flags along parts of Interstate 95, says he wants to see a detailed inventory of every artifact and every paper in the museum’s collection, from personal letters of Confederate soldiers and their families to official correspondence and maps linked to the Confederacy. “We want to know that it was at point A and everything arrived at point B,” he says. “We don’t want anything to be mysteriously lost or mysteriously damaged.”
Rawls is philosophical about the criticism that seems to be constantly directed at him. He says some donors have applauded the consolidation with the American Civil War Center, and others have not. But, according to Rawls, that’s true of any combination of two institutions, whether they are museums or corporations. “We have been surprised and pleased that the great bulk of our traditional donors have renewed, and in many cases upgraded, their membership support,” says Rawls. He could provide no figures regarding contributions, however.
Mergers can bring extraordinary benefits, he says. He’s seen it firsthand. He recalled being on the board of the old Civil War Trust when it merged with the Association of the Preservation of Civil War Sites. “There was resistance on the part of both boards, but the two of them combined and created a powerhouse.”
According to Rawls, the legal agreement between the two institutions is that each institution will continue to own all of its current assets.
The three most important assets of the Museum of the Confederacy, he says, are the White House of the Confederacy, a $3 million endowment — most of which is restricted for upkeep of the White House — and its Confederate collections. For an idea of what rare Civil War items go for, consider that in 2009 a Texas oilman spent $2 million to purchase the sack coat that Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant reportedly wore when Lee surrendered at Appomattox, along with J.E.B. Stuart’s sword. The Museum of the Confederacy owns the frock coat that Lee wore at the surrender, along with Lee’s sword.
Part of the museum’s archival collections have moved or will be moving to the Virginia Historical Society, where they will be copied and displayed online for scholars and other interested parties. The items will continue to be owned by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society, commonly known as the Museum of the Confederacy. It was the Memorial Literary Society that amassed the museum’s collections and did fundraising for their care and preservation. The museum opened in its existing building in 1976.
“If you go to Virginia Historical Society 10 years from now and you quote a letter from Robert E. Lee in a book, your attribution will be ‘From the Museum of the Confederacy collection at the Virginia Historical Society,’ ” Rawls says.
Ed Ayers is president of the University of Richmond, chairman of the American Civil War Museum and a Civil War historian with a national reputation. He is not given to idle talk or speculation. He speaks with resolve, even between flashes of his trademark boyish grin. Ayers says one of the most important things to know about the American Civil War Museum is this: “It’s not beginning on a wish and a hope. It’s beginning with folks who want it to be a success.”
“What is gained,” Ayers says, “are the great artifacts of the Museum of the Confederacy and the great mission and location of the American Civil War Center. We think that it will be the place to come when you come to Richmond.” He says money from donors will flow because of a remarkably compelling vision for the combined institution. The new American Civil War Museum is a big idea he says, but it has the resources and capacity to realize that dream.
The Civil War, whether from the Confederate or Union perspective, is a story that cannot truly be understood, Ayers says, unless you come to Richmond. “Forty percent of the Union soldiers who died, died within 150 miles of Richmond. I like to say that this is the Normandy of the North.”
Regarding the focus and intent of the American Civil War Museum, he emphasizes, “It’s not a place where [visitors] can find their ancestor. It’s a place where they can find other Americans.”