A central piece of the rhetoric about taking the Confederate flag down from state property and official state symbols is that “it belongs in a museum.” Actually it doesn’t belong in a museum either unless it is properly contextualized and interpreted, unless you don’t want any people of color to come to the museum. Aleia Brown has a good piece explaining this:
What might such an exhibit look like? It would need to tell the history behind the flag. It is a symbol of white supremacy, and museums should acknowledge it as such. The designer for the second national flag of the Confederacy described it as a representation of the fight to “maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” The exhibit should also acknowledge the role the flag played in South Carolina’s past. The flag that’s captured national attention this week came to Columbia in 1962, as a reaction to black people fighting for and winning rights during the civil rights era.
Effective museum interpretation would not stop there. It would address the reoccurring questions surrounding this symbol. Why do people find the flag offensive? Why are other people so attached to the flag? Why do some people who embrace the fullness of Southern pride, including the Confederate flag, not see themselves as racists?
Furthermore, a complete interpretation of the Confederate flag would need to make clear that black people have always resisted white supremacy and fought for the demise of institutional racism. The late historian Vincent Harding put forth this idea, characterizing black people as committed to their freedom and unwilling to accept oppression. There has always been a cadre of black people willing to die for their freedom in America, and this too is germane to museum interpretation of the Confederate flag. In addition to being a sacred space, the AME church in Charleston was also home to the storied congregation to which the revolutionary Denmark Vesey had belonged. His church was burned after Vesey was accused of plotting an uprising in which enslaved people would revolt against slave masters.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have controversial pieces in museums. I’ve seen KKK material in several museums, including fully uniformed figures in the Colorado and Ohio state history museums. But those are contextualized, or in the case of Ohio was part of an exhibit that was specifically about the most controversial pieces they had in their collection.
But this often is not the case. As Brown discusses, lot of history museums do not deal with race well at all. Most people on history museum governing boards are conservatives. There’s a lot of downward pressure against anything “controversial” which inevitably means “would make white conservative patrons uncomfortable.” Does anyone believe that the South Carolina state history museum would tell the story of the Confederate flag in an appropriate way? I surely don’t.
So let’s either keep the Confederate flag out of museums or, hopefully, pressure museums to tell stories of white supremacy carefully to emphasize what those objects actually represented.