​American Civil War Museum: What Do You Love?

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
At the Oct. 11 public conversation, Christy S. Coleman and S. Waite Rawls talked about the behind-the-scenes challenges faced in establishing the American Civil War Museum (ACWM). The ACWM is the nation’s first museum to explore the story of the Civil War from multiple perspectives: Union, Confederate and African American.
During the six-year Virginia Civil War sesquicentennial, Coleman and Rawls separately received phone calls proposing a merger between Richmond’s American Civil War Center, where Coleman served as CEO, and the city’s Museum of the Confederacy, where Rawls served as CEO. Prior to coming to the Center in 2008, Coleman served nine years as the CEO for the Museum of African American History in Detroit.
The promised financial support if the institutions combined had a strong allure, and Coleman and Rawls had a history of working together on programs. They presented the idea to their respective boards.
“The boards came up with reasons not to do it,” Rawls said.
“Ninety percent of mergers between nonprofits fail because of difficulty aligning the missions,” Coleman acknowledged.
Coleman and Rawls drafted a vision statement. The boards softened to the merger idea, but couldn’t agree on who would run the museum. The Center’s board championed Coleman, and the Confederate Museum’s board championed Rawls.
The two met in private and Coleman posed the question, “What do you love about museum work?” They divided up responsibilities according to the predilection of each with three shared areas.
In May of 2013, the two boards voted to form a new separate nonprofit with the Center and Museum of the Confederacy as subsidiaries. Work began on strategizing public relations and marketing, but before the new museum even had a name, “We were outed,” Coleman said.
Rawls was accused of “becoming PC,” and Coleman was accused of “selling out to the confederacy.”
“People are sensitive about that era of our history,” Rawls said. “They were scared we wouldn’t tell the truth as they know it.” Rawls stressed that presenting “multiple perspectives” was critical to credibility.
The nationwide controversy about Confederate monuments and statues speaks to that fear.
“National PTSD followed the Civil War,” Rawls said. “Over 750,000 soldiers died, more than in all other U.S. wars combined. The Civil War generation wanted to know ‘Will people remember us?’” Monuments began to appear throughout the country. The largest, almost 400 feet tall, is in Indianapolis, Ind.
The 2015 murders in Charleston set off a nationwide clamor calling for removal of confederate memorials.
“In 2016, I began getting calls asking if the museum wanted statues,” Coleman said. She respectfully declined. She accepted an invitation to serve as co-chair of the Richmond Monument Avenue Commission convened to address controversy surrounding Monument Avenue’s six Confederate statues.
At a public comment meeting in August of 2017, people arrived “armed ready for verbal battle,” according to Coleman. She described the polarized sides as “tear ’em down versus leave our heritage alone.”
The commission recommended signage and art installations alongside the monuments to aid in “re-imagining” how to engage with the statues. The commission also recommended amending state law to let local people determine the fate of Virginia monuments, but the Richmond city council rejected the idea.
“The museum is about breaking down barriers and allowing people to see one another in different ways,” Coleman said. Acknowledging the appropriateness of loving ones heritage, Coleman gave a poignant illustration, “You can love your drunk uncle, but you can’t pretend he’s not an alcoholic. You don’t want alcoholism in the family to spread.”