Museums Aren’t Forever. The Jefferson Davis Presidential Home, Library and Museum – Revisited.

Posted on March 21, 2017

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“Museums are forever. At least that is what we’ve come to believe.”

Thus began an interesting abstract by Steven Lubar, Lukas Rieppel, Ann Daly and Kathrinne Duffy entitled, Lost Museums, recently published on Museum History Journal’s Facebook page. (Yes, there IS more to Facebook than dog videos and pictures of cute kids.)

The abstract points out that of course museums aren’t forever. War, natural disasters, changing viewpoints and just an overabundance of ‘stuff’ demands a “should I stay, or should I go” attitude toward all collections, personal or public. Anyway, the abstract made me immediately think of one site we recently re-visited along the Gulf Coast.

We first visited Beauvoir, in Biloxi, Mississippi soon after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in 2005.stormfront.org

While heavily damaged, there was enough left of Beauvoir – the seaside retirement estate of first, and only, President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis – making restoration possible.

Not so for the original presidential library and museum.

FEMA funds enabled the construction of a brand new building, dedicated and opened to the public in 2013. The current library  houses the papers, artifacts and historical documents relating to Davis and the Confederacy that managed to survive Katrina’s wrath. It is not administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA),  but rather the state of Mississippi.

The Museum features changing temporary exhibits as well as a permanent exhibit covering President Davis’ life.JD

We visited the new library and museum in 2017. The building itself is huge and impressive; the collection inside is tiny and strangely sad.

Strolling through, the museum seemed inhabited by the ghosts of artifacts lost during that terrible time in 2005. Faint – and not so faint – signs of damage to ‘conserved’ artifacts was clear, and the whole effect was somehow depressing. So much must have been lost. Lost forever thanks to a natural disaster.

And perhaps, too, partly lost because of changing viewpoints and attitudes toward a terrible period in American history.

Maybe there’s less money available to obtain artifacts held in private collections; maybe there’s less public interest and more general willingness to let it all just go away.

Our visit reminded us of the current struggles of historians in both Richmond, Virginia, and New Orleans, Louisiana to hang on to their Confederate statuary. It’s sad to see a growing urge to embrace only pleasant history, while figuratively shoving unpleasant history into aside.

Especially since there’s probably more for everyone to learn from the unpleasant stuff.

 

 

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