In the aftermath of the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that claimed the lives of nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, politicians from both sides of the aisle have called for the Confederate flag that flies on the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol to come down. A common theme of these calls to lower the flag has been the suggestion that this symbol of America’s racist past belongs not on a flagpole on public land but in a museum. Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush and President Obama all have called for the flag to be retired to a museum.
At first blush, the suggestion makes sense. Museums preserve and exhibit material culture. When Jeb Bush ordered the Confederate flag that had once flown over Florida’s capitol to be taken down, he relocated it to the Museum of Florida History. But the solution of what to do with South Carolina’s Confederate flag is not so simple. Displaying the flag in, say, the South Carolina State Museum would provide little improvement over flying it at the Capitol, unless the museum made the effort to provide context that would explain the flag’s place in the state’s, and the nation’s, history.
What might such an exhibit look like? It would need to tell the history behind the flag. It is a symbol of white supremacy, and museums should acknowledge it as such. The designer for the second national flag of the Confederacy described it as a representation of the fight to “maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” The exhibit should also acknowledge the role the flag played in South Carolina’s past. The flag that’s captured national attention this week came to Columbia in 1962, as a reaction to black people fighting for and winning rights during the civil rights era.
Effective museum interpretation would not stop there. It would address the reoccurring questions surrounding this symbol. Why do people find the flag offensive? Why are other people so attached to the flag? Why do some people who embrace the fullness of Southern pride, including the Confederate flag, not see themselves as racists?
Furthermore, a complete interpretation of the Confederate flag would need to make clear that black people have always resisted white supremacy and fought for the demise of institutional racism. The late historian Vincent Harding put forth this idea, characterizing black people as committed to their freedom and unwilling to accept oppression. There has always been a cadre of black people willing to die for their freedom in America, and this too is germane to museum interpretation of the Confederate flag. In addition to being a sacred space, the AME church in Charleston was also home to the storied congregation to which the revolutionary Denmark Vesey had belonged. His church was burned after Vesey was accused of plotting an uprising in which enslaved people would revolt against slave masters.
It’s certainly possible that a museum could create such an exhibit, though the terms in which South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley discussed the flag in her remarks on Monday suggest that curators would feel political pressure to also describe the flag in its defenders’ terms. Before acknowledging that the flag, to some, “is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past,” she noted that others revere the flag, and to them it is “a symbol of respect, integrity, and duty. They also see it as a memorial, a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during time of conflict. That is not hate, nor is it racism.” Such efforts to appease the flag’s defenders might help to perpetuate a misunderstanding of its initial purpose and lasting power as a symbol of oppression.
It’s not just external pressure that would be the problem, however. Museums don’t have a great track record on issues of race. Race has emerged as the most popular topic in the museum community that we never actually address directly. (We even tend to avoid using the word race, preferring vague terms like “social justice” and “diversity and inclusion.”) Too many museums are blind to how race lives in their collections, exhibition spaces, and public interactions.
The prevailing approach to race in museums has been to ignore it. The American Alliance of Museums’ first statement on diversity and inclusion was only issued in 2014. The statement reflects the hazy vision of the field. It makes clear that AAM “values and celebrates the unique attributes, characteristics, and perspectives that make each person who they are,” but does not include any specific language prohibiting hate or discrimination of any kind. Embracing diversity is not the same as making a commitment to dismantling systems of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other pervasive forms of oppression. Too often, museums have simply chosen to neglect racially charged holdings in their collections rather than confront and interpret them. But censoring objects that are symbols of oppression does nothing to make a museum a socially conscious forum—something museums claim they’re striving for.
That museum professionals still suffer a fraught relationship with race was made plain in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests. On Twitter, museum professionals expressed the difficulty of addressing race, especially when they don’t have support from their institutions. Many museum workers claimed leaders at their institutions specifically told them to avoid race and other incendiary topics. Others complained that they did not have training, knowledge, or adequate resources to facilitate a productive conversation on race in a museum space. Their frustrations often resulted in deciding to just go along with the grain and leave the subject untouched.
Thankfully, there is a rapidly growing body of scholarship that provides museums with the tools for thoughtful interpretation on race relations. Most recently, Keisha Blain, assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa, led a crowdsourced project to form the #CharlestonSyllabus. Housed on the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society, the list contains both primary and secondary resources, historically grounding the shooting in Charleston. For museum professionals who have never had to discuss or interpret race beyond the old Black History Month tropes, #CharlestonSyllabus equips them with the materials to address the news in a constructive way. More traditional resources, like the book Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums, offer useful analysis of how museums deal with race and their impact on their communities.
While museums, in general, are sadly not prepared to accession the Confederate flag, the events of this week should be seen as a call to action. There are now ample resources available for museums to learn about race and use that knowledge to undergo strategic change. It is time for museums to stop the twisted tango talk that peripherally deals with race or evades it altogether. This approach is not productive and devalues the lived experience of black Americans, as well as any representations of blackness in museums. It stunts the country’s growth in understanding our past and in working toward racial healing.
American museums should seize this moment to look through their collections for objects that can contextualize the flag and its relation to the shooting in Charleston. Take, for instance, the quilt Southern Shame, Southern Horrors by Gwendolyn Magee, which was made in response to Mississippi’s failure in 2001 to adopt a state flag without the Confederate battle emblem and is part of the collection at the Michigan State University Museum. The quilt presents three layers of visuals: the Confederate flag, black lynched bodies, and a Ku Klux Klan hood. Exhibiting it would provide visitors with the opportunity to interpret history; the quilt depicts horrors that visitors may have not been able to conceptualize on their own. As of now, the quilt is displayed on the Quilt Index, a research database the museum runs, but not in the museum itself.
Until museums move forward, a better plan might involve the flag traveling to various community centers, libraries, and museums throughout the country for a year, accompanied by trained facilitators and documentarians. Traveling beyond state borders would reinforce that the issues tied up in the flag are hardly limited to South Carolina. Each stop could provide a forum for communities to dissect what the flag means to them and for people to listen to others who may not share their point of view.
After the flag’s one-year tour, I do not think it should go to a museum. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to visit a mainstream museum I believe would make it an institutional priority to do the intense and in-depth public engagement this object deserves. That doesn’t mean there aren’t museums that handle race sensitively. The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina, specifically collects material culture dealing with the post-Reconstruction South, and its exhibit schedule challenges visitors to think critically about race. And there are many black museums around the country that do so as well. But it’s too often the case that black institutions are expected to use their resources to interpret images of white supremacy. The problem of interpreting this symbol shouldn’t be their burden.
It is long past time for the museum world to get its house in order. If museums genuinely want to be socially responsible, they will have to commit to learning about and addressing race. In the meantime, I believe the Confederate flag should go to the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. There it could serve as an emblem of free Africans in America working to survive while trying to dismantle white supremacy. That legacy belongs to them.