Notes from IHA
IHA’s July Report to Members addressed the role that museums may play in facing the controversies surrounding memorials, especially those concerning the Confederacy. Articles cited from History News in the Autumn 2016 (vol. 71, no. 4) issue seem even more relevant considering the recent events relating to the removal of Confederate statues. There are over seven hundred monuments extant, including three in Illinois. The Illinois monuments, rather than being a glorification of the Confederate cause, are in cemeteries where Confederate soldiers died, primarily from disease. A fourth cemetery has graves of Confederate soldiers but does not have a monument.
As noted, cultural heritage organizations have a role to play in adding dimension and context to our understanding of current issues. Regarding Civil War monuments, they can offer opportunities to understand when, where, and why they were erected, and the messages they convey. An interesting sidelight to the topic of the removal of Confederate statues is that descendants of Stonewall Jackson wrote to Slate on Aug. 16, 2017, “An Open Letter from the great-great grandsons of Stonewall Jackson: The Monuments Must Go,” They pointed to the statue of Stonewall Jackson, as well as all the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA., labeling them as overt symbols of racism and white supremacy.
Perhaps having community discussions can bring people together for healing and understanding, and perhaps cultural heritage organizations can be places for these conversations. Libraries have developed respected reputations as information centers and many have community rooms, making them logical gathering places. Museums and historic sites have been identified as safe places where difficult subjects can be discussed. After the Muslim backlash following the 9/11 tragedy, museums were places where communities gathered in town meetings to seek tolerance and healing. Other topics that could lend themselves to discussion include immigration, diversity, racism, population, environmental concerns, and climate change.
It is important that community discussions take place within a background of information and historical context. The issue of removing Confederate statues becomes more meaningful if questions about their origins are raised. Here is where host institutions can help the public to understand the motives of those involved in controversies Are the individuals depicted regarded as representing our common history or as heroes of a “lost cause?” Including historians and scientists in the conversation can bring a new dimension to this understanding. Cultural organizations would be well-advised to do planning prior to hosting events directed towards controversial subjects. Coordinating with law enforcement may be a part of the planning. Understanding how unassuming participants may be manipulated by provocateurs may be part of preliminary study. Reaching out to groups with experience in community discussion, such as the Japanese American National Museum or the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center can help to make well-intentioned ventures successful. Leaders of our cultural heritage organizations can have an important role as community leaders in the moral dilemmas that face us.