I’m talking this week with John Coski, recipient of ECW’s 2019 Emerging Civil War Award for Service in Public History. John works as a historian with the American Civil War Museum in Richmond and, prior to its recent merger with the American Civil War Center, at the Museum of the Confederacy.
“There’s a big difference between the Museum of the Confederacy and the Museum for the Confederacy,” John said in yesterday’s segment. “It’s our subject of study; it is not a religion.”
Chris Mackowski: What particular challenges are there to curating a collection of Confederate artifacts?
John Coski: Well, our collections department does that, and in that sense, it’s the same as any. The way this museum has and continues to do exhibits—this will continue into the future with the American Civil War Museum—the way we do exhibits is kind of odd. But it was odd in a way that worked to my benefit, Ruth Ann’s [his wife’s] benefit, and others. Our collections department, the people who take care of the artifacts, who care for the collection, who write and develop exhibits—in the MOC days, it was kind of open ended about who would work on those.
In our in-house exhibits, the curators took care of the collection and helped to develop the exhibits, but because we were a relatively poor museum, and always had been—our curator, Robert Hancock is very skilled as an artist, and he’s also a carpenter and everything else—he built cases and did the floor plans for things.
Except for the exhibits that were funded by NEH, we developed our own exhibits. And so my job became, among other things, to develop the ideas and to write the text and the labels, working with Robert on the creative end. There’s always been kind of a creative tension, but a good creative tension between us. So the challenge is less of a challenge in some ways and was just a wonderful opportunity. It was the premier collection for that subject in the world.
JC: We could do anything. So the challenge was to, okay what subject do we want to explore? What scholarship do we want to employ? What subjects? What topics?
And so too, I always envision approaching it from two sides, at least—kind of a matrix, with the ideas and the artifacts. Okay, what artifacts do we have to support this idea? Hmm, not much; well, let’s tweak the idea a bit then.
Or, we don’t want to have to get a loan. They’re difficult, especially if you leave the exhibit up a long time, so let’s just tweak the idea a little bit, or be creative about how we can look at these artifacts and make them do something a little bit different, or we can play off of them, do a little oblique end run or a flank march, if you will, to use a military analogy.
But as long as the subject was the Confederate side of the Civil War, which was perfectly defensible for the museum as it was, we didn’t need to go afield. We had more than enough to do everything.
You know, we could create a whole new exhibit at Appomattox and still have enough to do two or three more if we had continued in that direction. It is still such a rich collection. So it was less of a challenge than a privilege. And just a thrill really. More than likely, whatever idea you might have for an exhibit, we have something for it. We have really, really good stuff for it. Not just a bullet that happened to be dug out of the ground, but, all these attributed items, uniforms, and military weaponry and civilian stuff, and more African-American stuff that anybody really understood we had. And the library collection extended it even further.
It’s a joy to work with it, and I can bore you with the exhibits that I worked on, but it was just a lot of fun to come up with an idea, get it through a committee of my peers, and then have an opportunity to run with it.
CM: That’s one of the things that I always appreciated about the museum: it didn’t feel old and dusty. There was a freshness about a lot of what was going on down there.
JC: Thank you, I appreciate that. We tried. I mean, “The Confederate Years” were old and dusty, but we revised it a lot over the years. We had plans going back to just before I got there when it was a less-than-ten-year-old exhibit to revise it completely, but we never got the money for it. But what we did do is kind of make it feel less like a 1970’s Park Service visitor center, which it resembled. Les Jensen and others built it themselves there much the same way. Instead of hiring a design firm, or a design-and-build firm, to do it, the curators and a couple of buddies built the cases and built all the stuff. That’s the reality of a small museum. You don’t do an RFP [request for proposal] for design firms to come in and do your exhibits for you unless you have a major grant to do it.
So the first exhibit, “The Confederate Years,” was basically a Park Service visitor center, 1970’s-style, but then around it, in the floors above and below, we had exhibits that were not chronological. They were a little bit topical, and the purpose was to show off this collection. That’s why people drove from Germany to see the exhibit, as we used to say. They wanted to see the stuff.
But by that point, of course, the open-storage technique that had been the exhibit technique in the old White House, it was no longer fashionable and no longer acceptable. It had to be based on scholarship. We all agreed on that.
And for the Museum of the Confederacy to continue our evolution, which was from within, we all had to push the envelope a little bit—hence “Before Freedom Came,” hence “A Woman’s War,” hence “Embattled Emblem,” which was my baby, the flag stuff. That was all to challenge people, challenge the people who trusted us and knew us, by asking them to accept other viewpoints.
Yes, the museum may have started as a shrine, but it’s not a shrine now. We still have the stuff that makes it a shrine. And if you want to bring your child in here and show and worship at the altar of The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson, nobody’s stopping you. But you’re going to have to go by an exhibit about African-American slavery on the way downstairs. Or you’re going to have to go read a panel about the importance of the South Carolina Declaration in December of 1860 before you start your tour of the military history with all the guns and weapons you expected to see. And exhibits about the origin of the battle flag, or about the fall of Richmond in 1865, that are topical and embody the latest scholarship.
So we were very deliberate, and we understood what our core old-time membership wanted and expected from us, but we also knew what the wider public not only expected but also deserved from us. We felt a really good, heavy responsibility to push the envelope for those who believe it’s a shrine and represent it well to the wider public.
My philosophy was always that we want people to understand the importance of the Confederacy and to help to kind of neutralize the word “Confederacy” so people don’t get this immediate impression one way or another, and so that African-Americans aren’t scared of the word and people don’t think of it as a white nationalist term. It’s a period of history that was the most important in American history, and the Confederacy was at the center of it all. And we wanted to sort of help people get over whatever their emotional reaction was by being as objective as possible.
CM: That had to be a particular challenge over the last two or four years, don’t you think?
JC: Yes. And it’s a different world. It’s a very different world. And, of course, by that point, the museum had become the American Civil War Museum. Things have changed dramatically from inside as well as outside. And, of course, there’s a lot of discussion even now about the decline in Civil War visitorship at Park Service sites and elsewhere. And there’s been some suggestion that that’s because people are—I don’t know whether they’re literally scared of somebody opening up on them like somebody’s gonna “go postal” at a park site or something, or that somehow the reputation of the Civil War battlefields is somehow stained by Charlottesville and Charleston, that those people now speak for the Civil War battlefields.
I don’t quite believe that, but there’s something going on with the decline in visitation to Civil War sites generally, including Park Service sites and including ours. We were widely congratulated for having changed our name ahead of the curve, a year before Charleston; that made us, you know, a little more palatable to a wider public. It was, of course, completely by accident that that happened. It was just part of our evolution after the merger with American Civil War Center. But the timing did allow us to escape the kind of violent reaction to Charleston. It allowed us to be in a position to be constructive.
That’s what the MOC did over the years; we tried anyway. If you look into our history, you can tell we failed on several occasions over the years. We got derailed from that Pollyanna-ish mission I was describing to you earlier, but for the most part we did well, and I’m very proud of our work with that.
Tomorrow, as we continue our conversation with John, we’ll talk more about the museum’s evolution from the Museum of the Confederacy to the American Civil War Museum. “We were evolving,” he says, “in a way that made it very clear that we wanted to engage, even more than MOC did, with the relevance of the war….” We’ll also hear about his groundbreaking work on the Confederate battle flag.