March 12, 2002
© 2002 Richmond Times-Dispatch

Less than two weeks after taking the helm at the Museum of the Confederacy (, J.A. Barton Campbell reduced the staff by nearly 20 percent. But it's his latest move that seems to be causing the most unrest.

Late last week, at Campbell's suggestion, the museum unfurled a Confederate battle flag outside its front doors. Some fear it is a sign that the nonprofit institution is about to take a very pro-Southern approach to Civil War history.

"This just smacks of what we did not want," said one former employee who asked not to be identified. She left when her position was eliminated. "It's a blatant symbol . . . and racially charged."

J.A. Barton Campbell

Director J.A. Barton Campbell

Campbell erected the Army of Northern Virginia battle flag, he said, to teach others about its past.

"I'm hoping it will be an education piece - to help others understand why it was designed, how it was used and what it represents," he said.

Members of the museum's Board of Trustees support Campbell's decision.

"I understand that people have their sensitivities," said Martika Parson, the only African-American on the 22-member board. "But this is a museum. We are educational. That's one of our main focuses. If we don't preserve history for the future, we are doomed to repeat it."

Since Robin E. Reed's quiet departure last November, rumors have been circulating that he was forced out because of his desire for telling a more inclusive story of the war. During his tenure, the museum tackled such topics as slavery and the roles of women.

Because of a confidentiality agreement, Reed won't comment on his resignation. But he did offer his rationale for not flying a Confederate battle flag outside the museum during his nine years as director.

"I don't think it is an effective way to educate people about battle flags," Reed said. "These are relics and icons from the killing fields themselves . ... . they never really flew on public buildings." Now that one is, some worry that officials will transform the museum into a shrine to the Confederacy.

"Robin Reed made this the Museum of the Confederacy," said another employee who left just before the layoffs. "Now I'm afraid it's going to become the Museum for the Confederacy. That's something I don't want to be part of."

While some speculate about the museum's future, Campbell says it will continue to offer an accurate historical interpretation of the war. The Tennessee native was named Reed's successor on Feb. 19.

Museum of the Confederacy logo"We are going to be a professional proponent of Confederate history," Campbell said. "We are not going to slant anything. We want to reach out across the country and be inclusive. We want to spread the word that . . . we are the folks telling the Confederate side of the story. That's what we are after all, the Museum of the Confederacy."

Civil War experts say the addition of the flag will certainly attract attention. It replaced one of two U.S. flags and flies alongside six others at the entrance.

"This seems to signal a shift to the right," said William C. Davis, director of programs at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. "I have no problem with the right or the left. I just think it ought to stay out of history. The result there is almost always a distortion of the past. There is a huge difference between preserving and celebrating."

Museum officials insist they understand that distinction.

"This is the place where all Confederate stories are told," said J.E.B. Stuart IV, president of the museum's Board of Trustees. "Someone might try to draw a conclusion [from the battle flag], but there isn't any. We are not waving this down the street. This is part of history."

A former senior manager at Reynolds Metals Co., Campbell has been a member of the Museum of the Confederacy since the 1960s. He had served on the Board of Trustees since last September, stepping down when he was named director.

During his first few days on the job, Campbell began replacing the term "Civil War" with "War Between the States."

"I like that term," Campbell said. "To me, it's more accurate. Some of my scholarly friends might disagree with me, but I think it's more descriptive of what transpired."

Fred D. Taylor, president of the Heritage Preservation Association of Virginia, agrees.

Museum of the Confederacy

Museum of the Confederacy


"I think the change is good," Taylor said. "I think the Museum of the Confederacy has gotten away from telling the true Southern story. I think sometimes they even depict the Confederacy in a bad light."

A member of the museum for years, Taylor stopped visiting after a conversation with then director Reed a few years ago.

"He told me that this was the Museum of the Confederacy, not for the Confederacy," Taylor recalled. "That's when I cut my ties."

Attracting new visitors has been a battle at the museum. Attendance dropped from nearly 79,000 in 1992-93 to about 61,625 in 1999-2000. Add to that financial concerns, and layoffs were almost a certainty.

During last month's restructuring, the number of full-time positions dropped from 27 to 22. Eight employees left and some part-timers became full time.

"It was a fiscally oriented move," Stuart said. "We've been over budget for a while. It got to the point where we needed to do something. We probably should have done this a while ago."

Without the restructuring, the museum would have been about $300,000 over budget this fiscal year, Stuart said. The layoffs won't correct the problem entirely, he said, but they will help. The museum also plans to wipe out its summer camp program and consolidate its publications.

"I feel like the bad guy in a way," Campbell said. "But I try to tell people that you have to remember not to shoot the messenger. The message would be the same no matter who came in."

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