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New Museum In Richmond Confronts Realities Of The American Civil War


A new museum focused on an inclusive and comprehensive history of the U.S. Civil War opens this weekend in Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy. As Mallory Noe-Payne of member station WVTF reports, it's a timely look at history that has loomed large in recent events.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If we step on into the gallery...

MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: Construction on the museum began in 2017, just days after white supremacists rallied around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, turning into a deadly confrontation. Now the opening comes as a blackface scandal still hovers over Virginia's governor. Museum chief Christy Coleman says it's past time for Americans to set aside myths about the Civil War and its aftermath and confront the realities.


CHRISTY COLEMAN: You know, I've said this more times than enough now - we'll never get right with each other if we don't get the history right.

NOE-PAYNE: The new American Civil War Museum aims to do just that. It's unprecedented in its attempt to tell the entire story of the war, not just from the Northern and Southern perspectives but through the eyes of women, immigrants, Native Americans and enslaved African Americans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The old master didn't tell no one they was free. The Yankees went there and turned us loose on...

NOE-PAYNE: Letters are read aloud with a sense of immediacy and drama. Photographs are life-sized and in color.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They turned us out just like cattle.

NOE-PAYNE: And old artifacts are displayed in new context, made possible by combining the former museum of the Confederacy's extensive collection with the latest scholarship and research.

ED AYERS: Let's make this story fresh. Let's make it relevant. Let's make it exciting. Let's make it terrifying.

NOE-PAYNE: Civil War historian Ed Ayers is one of the museum's founders. He says many Americans have lost a sense of the depth and suffering of the war.

AYERS: We've domesticated the Civil War. We've turned it into kind of a hobby. You know, people don't say I'm a Holocaust buff.

NOE-PAYNE: The new $25 million museum doesn't romanticize the history.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So we're going to go up and we'll look out over the river here and over the ruined wall.

NOE-PAYNE: The building overlooks the James River where enslaved Africans were brought here by boat. Chief Curator Cathy Wright makes it clear the Civil War was fought over that human cargo.

CATHY WRIGHT: So we felt, you know, we're not going to sit here and go down this road of debate about states' rights and westward expansion or any of these other things. It's slavery, full stop.

NOE-PAYNE: That directness might challenge some people's notions of the war. But that's the point, says CEO Christy Coleman.

COLEMAN: This idea that we can't reexamine or give the fullness of the story of our past is problematic. It's extremely problematic.

NOE-PAYNE: Coleman is a historian, and she's part of a committee that advised the city of Richmond to add context to the Confederate monuments that still stand just a couple miles away. Coleman hopes that by learning the nation's history, in all its complexity and humanity, people will be more prepared to confront today's challenges.

COLEMAN: I think we stand a better chance of acknowledging that we still have a lot of work to do. It's not hopeless, but it's possible.

NOE-PAYNE: In the final days of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called on Americans to bind up the nation's wounds. Now, a century and a half later, The American Civil War Museum is open and historians are playing their part in that continuous effort.

For NPR News, I'm Mallory Noe-Payne in Richmond, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a freelance reporter and producer based in Richmond, Virginia. Although she's a native Virginian, she's most recently worked for public radio in Boston. There, she helped produce stories about higher education, including a nationally-airing series on the German university system. In addition to working for WGBH in Boston, she's worked at WAMU in Washington D.C. She graduated from Virginia Tech with degrees in Journalism and Political Science.

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