How many piercings can a museum docent have? It was a question Christy Coleman didn’t know she’d have to struggle with when she became the CEO of the American Civil War Center in 2013. But when that museum merged with the Museum of the Confederacy and built a brand new facility around the old Tredegar Iron Works in downtown Richmond, that was one of the questions the newly unified American Civil War Museum had to answer.
I had the opportunity, during a recent visit to the museum with other United Methodist leaders, to sit with Dr. Coleman as she described the challenges of not only joining together collections but histories and philosophies. The Museum of the Confederacy had undergone many changes through the years since its establishment in 1894 by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society, a group that sought to create a kind of shrine to those who fought for the South. Over the years, the museum took a broader look at the South’s difficult history, including the legacy of slavery and used its resources to explore African-American life as well.
The American Civil War Center, the other museum in the merger, had a different ethos. It opened its doors in 2006 and from the beginning tried to present three major perspectives on the war—from the point of the view of the Union, the Confederacy, and African-Americans. This museum encouraged more community outreach, more engagement with young people and the Richmond community, and, yes, younger docents, some of whom sported piercings.
“People won’t come to a museum if they don’t see any people who look like them,” Dr. Coleman said. After the merger, this was a hard sell for some of the leaders from the Museum of the Confederacy, who were used to a more staid and traditional look for their docents. But allowances were made and the staff at the new museum is refreshingly diverse.
What does this have to do with church? All of our churches have histories and ways of doing things that we’re not even aware of most of the time. Whether we say it out loud or not, we can come to believe that only a certain kind of person or look can represent what it is that we are about. But God’s kingdom is ever-new and allowances can be made that will welcome new people to share the gospel in new ways.
I remember going to the old Museum of the Confederacy as a boy. I recognized some of the collection in the new American Civil War Museum. But I was glad to see that it had a whole new context in a museum that talked about all the people of the time. In one room, a famous picture of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson faced, and was dwarfed by, a wall-sized color picture of African-American legislators in Reconstruction-era Virginia. It said, without saying it, that we have changed in some good ways and we shouldn’t go back.