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US museum deals afresh with memories of slavery

US museum deals afresh with memories of slavery
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First Published: Fri, Jun 08 2007. 10 57 AM IST
Updated: Fri, Jun 08 2007. 10 57 AM IST
Richmond: How the world wishes to wish slavery away. It is one dark blot that most countries would like to forget and here there is consensus between the victim and the perpetrator.
Richmond, is a city that is dominated by the black community and has for long guarded its museum which has been dedicated to the southern Confederacy. They fought a civil war to keep slavery but are now struggling to justify its politically sensitive existence.
Like many urban areas in the US, Richmond has racial problems but unlike major cities, they continue to blame some of it on the civil war.
Historical relevance
Southerners formed the Confederate States of America in 1861 when they withdrew from their northern union neighbours of the US to protest the threat of restrictions on their slave-owning rights.
Slaves were crucial to the economy of the south, where they worked cultivating tobacco, cotton and other crops.
Origin of the museum
Founded 20 years afterthe south’s defeat in the 1861-1865 civil war, number of visitors in the last decade dropped by nearly half. Even running it on the funds it generates has been difficult.
It houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Confederate civil war artifacts:
* 500 wartime flags
* 250 uniform pieces
* Personal belongings of many Confederate generals
* Boots of Confederate General Robert Lee
* Confederate navy china tea set bearing in French the motto “God helps those who help themselves”.
Public perception
There is romantic interest in the civil war with enduring images that have captured people’s minds for years: men flying flags as they charge across open grounds.
But for many, the Confederacy which fought in this war is a by-word for past racial prejudice, reflecting a side to American history that should not be celebrated.
Causes of worry
Fund crunch is a persistent issue. Though the state of Virginia has granted the museum $400,000 to keep it running for a year, fewer visitors are coming through its entrance, wedged between high neighbouring buildings.
As a result the museum is considering moving, clearly an unwelcome move. “We want them to stay where they are because they are a contribution to the culture of Richmond,” said Norman Linwood, spokesman for the city’s black mayor Douglas Wilder, referring to the museum’s collections.
The prospect of shifting the “White House” and changing the museum’s name has raised an outcry from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a historical society dedicated to preserving the memory of the South’s Civil War fight.
Interestingly, the collection on display contains no reference to slavery which was the core cause of the war, though pay certificates testify to the enlistment of blacks in the southern army.
“They were not carrying guns,” said the museum’s marketing assistant, Sam Craghead. “They would dig trenches, drive wagons and cook food. They didn’t give them guns because they wouldn’t know what they would do with it.”
Next door, the so-called southern White House where Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived, is preserved complete with mosquito nets protecting its great gilded mirrors On the other side of town, meanwhile, an alternative source of history arrived last year: the American Civil War Centre, with a permanent show housed in a war-era gun factory.
The centre’s president Alex Wise says it has a mission to tell the story from the Union, Confederate and African-American points of view, especially since the MOC’s is to focus on one side”, Wise said.
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First Published: Fri, Jun 08 2007. 10 57 AM IST