In Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian, museum professionals Amy Henderson and Adrienne L. Kaeppler wrote, “The debate over history and memory has illustrated at least one truth: Today there is no single, overarching agreement on historical truth. And because there are many histories, it follows that there are many ways of understanding” (Henderson and Kaeppler 1997, 4-5). Perhaps museums are unique because of the very idea that conflicted and compromised understandings of historical truth can coexist in a public setting. Our perception of history changes over time; indeed, our history has a history. This evolution is not constant, nor is it uniform. It is, however, a means by which we may analyze how we choose to learn from the past. The museum is a perpetually unfinished work of art, waiting to be molded and shaped by the public it seeks to serve.
In the North Carolina Museum of History, three exhibits represented three separate strains of Civil War memory—nostalgia, commemoration, and reconciliation. At the sesquicentennial moment, we would be well served to consider the implications of an interpretive ambivalence in the museum setting. Such a phenomenon suggests a larger collective ambivalence in the memory of the war and should spur museum professionals to consider how a more intentional, unified interpretation might be integrated into curriculum and exhibit content. Although competing historical narratives provocatively expose social/political/ideological commitments in modern society, they are also possibly detrimental to the broader educational mission of any historical institution. How can we work to bridge the conceptual gap between the myths of causes lost and the reality of African American agency before and after the war?
In order to gain a fuller picture of the museum’s role in defining and responding to memory of the Civil War, more work is needed devoting special attention to public representation in an interpretively fluid medium. How are dynamics of power manifested in these conflicts? Is this a regional phenomenon? What narratives continue to be neglected? And perhaps most importantly, what role can/should the museum play in shifting public perception? However we choose to approach these questions, the fact remains that the conflict on Edenton Street will likely continue for some time. By their very nature, museums are combat zones. Here, the silent battles defining ownership of past are won and lost. In any museum, a given narrative choice may drastically alter historical interpretation. However, we are reminded that in such an important moment, when the stakes are this high, it might also amount to a declaration of war.