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Museum Of The Confederacy Now Plans For Exhibits Near Four Va. Battlefields

Deborah Fitts

- (October 2007) RICHMOND, Va. - The Museum of the Confederacy, beleaguered by a long-running effort to determine its future, is trying a new tack: building mini-museums at several sites around Virginia.

"It was an epiphany," said museum spokesman Megan Stagg. "Why don't we bring the collection to the visitors, instead of trying to get the visitors to find us?"

The nonprofit museum, with its vast collection of Confederate-related items, has been foundering financially due to a chronic drop in visitation. Proposals to move the museum have sparked controversy and criticism.

But Stagg suggested that the new fix, dubbed the "statewide museum system," may be the charm. This time the proposal is to cease exhibiting at the East Clay Street facility and instead build four small museums near Civil War battlefields. Three sites have already been chosen, according to Stagg - Richmond, Appomattox and Chancellorsville, with a fourth to be named shortly.

Stagg acknowledged , "This is not a final decision. But it's what we really want to do. We want to get the artifacts out to where Civil War visitors are, and that's the battlefields. Now we want to get feedback. We hope there will be a final decision in the spring."

She explained that the museum board has only approved "letting the public know what our primary goal is now," and then gauge reaction.

In a press release, board chairman Carlton Moffatt stated, "It is an exciting prospect to expand our outreach to a greater number of historical tourists in Virginia. The plan is contingent on funding."

Moffatt added, "After three years of hard work involving a state study commission, a peer review study and a large number of volunteer experts, the board feels that a system of museum sites it the best way to accomplish our central goal of using artifacts to educate the public about the Civil War and the Confederacy."

Stagg said the goal is to have the four new museums up and running by the war's sesquicentennial in 2011. Until then, the East Clay Street facility would remain open as at present.

After that, East Clay Street would continue to serve only as administrative offices, collections storage and artifact conservation. The research library will still be available, however, and the adjoining White House of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis's home, will remain open to the public.

Museum president and CEO S. Waite Rawls III noted that the chosen sites "have strong visitation numbers and name recognition. We are looking to have space for many more artifacts that can be seen by three to four times as many people."

The museum board has concluded that the site next to the White House is difficult for tourists to find and has been overwhelmed by high-rise buildings on the expanding campus of its neighbor, Virginia Commonwealth University. But proposals to move the entire facility elsewhere in Richmond, or possibly to Lexington, have not been embraced by the public.

Each of the four new museums would comprise about 8,000 square feet, including 5,000 square feet of exhibit space. "We have an architect looking at designs," Stagg said. Each would be manned by a staff of five to 10 local employees.

The new facilities would be built on private property and would not be affiliated with the nearby national battlefield parks. "We don't want to interfere with the National Park Service," Stagg explained. Local officials in Richmond, Appomattox and Chancellorsville have been approached and have expressed support.

Stagg estimated the cost for each new building at around $5 million. She said the museum will start a capital campaign soon to seek donations from the private sector as well as local, state and federal governments.

The Virginia General Assembly "has helped us out in the past" and is expected to do so again, Stagg said.

She said the new buildings "won't be white-columned," but will "blend in" with the nearby battlefields. Building sites have yet to be chosen.

Each museum will have artifacts associated with the battle. At Appomattox, for example, the museum would display Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender sword, the pen he used to sign the surrender document, and several of the surrendered flags, of which the museum possesses 59.

Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, said, "The idea of combining artifacts with battlefields will bring new life to both." He called it "the perfect marriage."

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