U.S. Civil War museum to share surprising collection that includes child-size dolls
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – With surgical gloves, S. Waite Rawls III pulls out a large drawer in the basement of the Museum of the Confederacy to reveal a startling display: dolls the size of children, neatly lined up like small bodies on a morgue slab.
The dolls are among what the museum calls the “world’s most comprehensive collection of Confederate artifacts,” a trove valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Rawls, the museum’s president and CEO.
But at any given time, only 10 percent to 15 percent of the museum’s holdings are on display on the building’s three floors. The rest remains tucked away in gray cabinets, boxes stacked high and, in the case of delicate flags, in clear, sealed containers designed to hold the ancient stitching in place.
In 2011, a portion of the museum collection is scheduled to go on the road, journeying to three historic Virginia sites as part of a plan to bring the artifacts of the U.S. Civil War to the people.
The Confederacy was the group of pro-slavery southern states that seceded from the United States. The 1861-65 war ended in victory for the northern states, the abolishment of slavery and the return of the rebellious states to the union.
While half of the collection will remain at the Richmond museum, the satellite exhibits will draw upon a vast number of artifacts. The 15,000 items include:
_ 3,000 military accouterments _ spurs, saddles, tack, belts, medals and buttons totaling 1,000.
_ 510 of the 13,000 known wartime flags in existence, including one stitched by Gen. Robert E. Lee’s wife and four daughters.
_ 250 uniform pieces, including the one Lee wore when he surrendered to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia in 1865.
_ 5,000 domestic items such as homemade soap, slave-woven coverlets, baskets, dolls, china, silver sets and serving bowls the size of small tubs.
The collection of dolls includes “Lucy Ann,” which was used to smuggle quinine over enemy lines. The medicinal compound was hidden in the doll’s head – a compartment revealed when her hat and hair are removed.
Rawls said as significant as the collection is, the origins of each item are important – their provenance, in the vernacular of museum curators.
“How did we get all of Robert E. Lee’s stuff? From his son,” Rawls said. “How did we get all of Stonewall Jackson’s stuff? From his widow.”
The collection, nonetheless, has been unable to slow a steady decline of visitors. Located next to the executive mansion of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the museum is difficult to find amid the maze of the ever-expanding Virginia Commonwealth University medical complex, which towers over the mansion and the museum.
The museum has also suffered in recent years as the traditional Southern reverence of all things Confederate has fallen flat with newcomers and black Southerners who see no celebration in the Confederacy.
Critics have called the museum a shrine, a relic of the Old South.
The American Civil War Center, which is on the other side of downtown Richmond, is cast as a contemporary answer to the museum. It strives to present the African-American, North and South perspectives of the Civil War, with a greater emphasis on education than artifacts.
John Motley, chairman of the board of the Civil War Center, said he visits the Museum of the Confederacy each year because of the quality of its collection and programs. While he disagrees with the museum’s point of view, he added, “I think it is critical for the telling of the history of the United States that the valuable MOC collection is preserved.”
Kevin Levin, who teaches American history at a private school in Charlottesville and is the creator of the lively, irreverent blog Civil War Memory, said the museum has attempted to make itself relevant in recent years but has become a divisive symbol.
“Certain groups are unable to draw a distinction between a museum for the Confederacy as opposed to a museum of the Confederacy,” Levin wrote in an e-mail.
Rawls is mindful of the perception, but strongly disagrees that the museum celebrates the Confederacy. “We don’t. We tell the Confederacy’s story in depth,” he said.
Rawls said the museum strives to educate. “There are very few people who are willing to face the controversies of the Civil War, and we do,” he said.
In less than three years, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the museum aims to share its wealth at Appomattox, Fredericksburg, where one-third of all Civil War casualties were recorded within a 20-mile (32-kilometer) radius; and Fort Monroe, a Union outpost in Hampton where Davis was imprisoned after the war.
“At each site, we have an unbelievable historic place, a bunch of themes to explore,” Rawls said with enthusiasm. He envisions 400,000 visitors annually at the three locations and the museum, where its substantial scholarship will continue. That is 10 times greater than the museum’s annual visitors.
“I think in practical terms, getting the artifacts out there is the right move,” Levin said.
On a recent August afternoon, the museum was humming with visitors who peered into glass-enclosed display cases that included poignant reminders of the deadly conflict: a soldier’s bloodstained letter to home and a field notebook pierced by a shot that felled its owner, Stonewall Jackson’s cartographer. The same volley also wounded Jackson – one of Lee’s top generals in his Army of Northern Virginia.
Melynda and David Wilcox, of Alexandria, Va., stopped with their twin 10-year-old daughters on their way to North Carolina for a vacation. They had already visited the American Civil War Center, and thought the two museums complemented each other.
“I don’t think people should be put off by what’s here,” Melynda Wilcox said.
On the Net:
The Museum of the Confederacy: http://www.moc.org
Civil War Memory: http://civilwarmemory.typepad.com
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AP-CS-09-16-08 2008EDTReceived Id 1181779800 on Sep 16 2008 20:05