Saturday, April 14, 2007
Cramped Confederacy museum may move
Lexington is a contender as a site for the Museum of the Confederacy, which is seeing a decline in visitors at its overly small Richmond location.
Eric Brady | The Roanoke Times
The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond has room to display only a fraction of its holdings of Civil War memorabilia, documents and diaries.
RICHMOND -- It's the kind of collection that someone with even a passing interest in the Civil War might want to see.
Gen. Stonewall Jackson's blood-stained handkerchief, used to stop the bleeding after he was mortally wounded by his own troops. The fold-up bed that Gen. Robert E. Lee slept on. The sword that Gen. Lewis Armistead used to lead Pickett's Charge at the battle of Gettysburg.
They're among 14,000 artifacts housed in the Museum of the Confederacy in downtown Richmond. But as long as they remain there, museum officials fear that fewer and fewer history buffs will summon the courage to fight the modern-day battle of getting to the museum.
That's why the museum is considering proposals from Lexington and about a dozen other localities to house the facility in a modern new building with room for expansion.
Hemmed in for years by the voracious growth of Virginia Commonwealth University's medical center, the museum has seen its visitor attendance dramatically affected by nearby construction projects.
To get to the world's largest collection of Civil War artifacts, tourists have to navigate a maze of detours on Richmond's one-way streets, hunt for parking and dodge beeping construction equipment and whining ambulances just to make it to the museum's front doors.
"It's so hard to get here," said Waite Rawls, the museum's executive director. "The site is completely compromised."
Rawls spent nearly an hour last week pointing out some of his favorite exhibits on the museum's first floor, including Lee's boots, the suit worn by Confederate President Jefferson Davis when he was captured and one of the first Confederate battle flags ever made.
The museum also includes a research facility with thousands of rare Civil War documents, from Lee's papers to the Confederate constitution to letters and diaries of Confederate soldiers.
"You could start with a billion dollars in cash and you couldn't get this collection," Rawls said.
He has a unique characterization of the Civil War's high level of interest.
"The only subject that has more books written on it is Christianity," Rawls said. "The only person who's had more books written on him than Abraham Lincoln is Jesus Christ."
But the Confederate museum's collection is so extensive that its cramped quarters in Richmond can only display a fraction of it at a time.
"When you go through the collection vaults, you cry when you see the things that people don't get to see because there's no space to put them," Rawls said.
Richmond officials say the city has no money or alternative location for the museum.
"Unfortunately the city is not in a position to offer a great deal in that regard," Richmond Mayor Douglas Wilder said of the museum during a recent stop in Roanoke.
Lexington wants to change the museum's fate.
On Friday, with a proposal prepared by the Rockbridge Area Tourism Board, Lexington was among a dozen Virginia localities to formally invite the museum to consider moving from its cramped quarters in downtown Richmond.
Home to the burial sites of Lee and Jackson, as well as Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute, Lexington and Rockbridge County officials are willing to offer millions of dollars in tax incentives and renovate the old Rockbridge County Courthouse and surrounding buildings to house the museum.
A parking garage being built to serve the new county courthouse could accommodate museum visitors. Additionally, restaurants and shops in the historic downtown district are within walking distance of the proposed site for the museum.
The museum's arrival in Lexington wouldn't be welcomed by everyone. At a Lexington City Council meeting Thursday night, while some residents praised the museum, others expressed concern over its Confederate theme and connection to slavery. Creating divisiveness among the community is also a concern.
Civil War sites throughout Virginia are expecting an onslaught of tourists in 2011 during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's beginning.
"We know that the Civil War remains a hot topic for people who are interested in history and historical tourism," said Brian Shaw, chairman of the Rockbridge Area Tourism Board.
With its tourist-friendly downtown and proximity to Interstates 81 and 64, Shaw said Lexington is accessible to tourists who want to visit other Civil War sites in central and Southwest Virginia, as well as surrounding states.
Tourism officials say it's a simple equation. The millions of baby boomers across the country who retire over the next five years fit the demographic of people who visit historical tourist sites. They're also the demographic who tend to spend more freely on vacation travel and stay in locations overnight, according to a recent study conducted by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.
The study and other market research by the foundation found that Virginia ranks among the top 10 states in the country for traveler spending, and visiting Civil War sites is among the top 15 activities enjoyed by Virginia visitors.
The museum's building constraints and financial problems have been well documented: a dramatic decrease in revenue in recent years, a drop in visitation from 90,000 seven years ago to about 50,000 last year, staff layoffs and a reduction in operating hours.
The museum this year received about $400,000 from the state in emergency funds to help it stay afloat.
Rawls hopes both public and private funding could come with a new home in a place like Lexington.
"What the big-money donors are waiting for is, solve your problem, get to a different site," he said.
If the museum could maintain its current attendance level in Lexington, the city stands to gain an estimated $1 million annually in tax revenue.
That doesn't include a predicted surge in attendance levels during the Civil War anniversary.
"I think that there will be a lot of attention given to the sesquicentennial," said Elizabeth Paradis Stern, program manager for public and government relations for the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation in New Market. "There will be more discussion about the Civil War and what it means for us today."
That relevance is addressed as part of the exhibits at the American Civil War Center, located along the James River in Richmond not far from the Museum of the Confederacy in the old Tredegar Iron Works.
The center offers a glimpse of what the Museum of the Confederacy could become if it had more space and access to a building with modern-day technology. The center, which opened in October, offers the kind of multimedia approach in its exhibits that Rawls hopes to provide soon.
"We want to use technology to connect the artifacts with people and places," he said.
Museum officials plan to narrow the search to three localities soon and make a final choice in time to have a new facility up and running in time for the Civil War anniversary.