Saturday's Charleston (WV) Gazette newspaper ran an article on the deep divisions in West Virginia's sesquicentennial commission which eventually led to the resignations of four commission members. Among other things, that commission is empowered to encourage the involvement of "civic, historical, educational, economic and other organizations throughout West Virginia to organize and participate in activities to expand the understanding and appreciation of the American Civil War." According to the Gazette article, several members of the commission, including Dr. Mark Snell, complained that it was not doing enough to expand West Virginians' understanding of the Civil War and instead was focused too tightly on funding tourist-friendly events, such as re-enactments. According to the article, Snell and some others on the commission thought that it was wasting $100,000 in state funds by funding parades, Civil War festivals, and other such events. Snell and three others resigned their positions fearing, according to the Gazette, that West Virginia's sesquicentennial was being turned into a mawkish, trivial celebration rather than a sober commemoration of a devastating conflict.
Of course, the remaining commission members might very well dispute this characterization. West Virginia Secretary of Education and the Arts Kay Goodwin authored a recent op-ed piece that listed the various commemorative events that will take place in West Virginia over the next four years, including educational events such as a lecture series sponsored by the state's Humanities Council. The bulk of Goodwin's article was devoted to detailing activities designed to attract tourists to battlefield sites and state parks, however, suggesting that state leaders might see the sesquicentennial more as a commercial opportunity than as a forum to teach about the state's history. The dispute that led to the defections from the board illustrates divergent and competing ideas about the purpose of commemoration itself. Is the sesquicentennial an opportunity to invest in the education of citizens, or is it merely a literal investment designed to boost the economy (at least in the service sector, like tourism)? It is not surprising that a state commission, whose members represent various organizations, groups, and constituencies, would want its investment in the sesquicentennial to produce a tangible return for private sector businesses that would stand to benefit from sesquicentennial observances. Beyond that though, what is the commission's responsibility to inform its citizens about their past and how it has shaped their contemporary society?
The danger of treating such commemorative events as mere entertainment is that it would squander the wonderful opportunity to reach a large attentive audience and get them to think about the Civil War and the myriad ways it still resonates with us. This would be especially galling when we have the opportunity now to redress the wrongs of the centennial commemoration and include traditionally marginalized groups in this commemoration. Ideally, a commemoration that would inform people about the Civil War experiences of all Americans, male and female, white and black, enslaved and free, would encourage us to think about the nature of our contemporary, multicultural society and reflect on the ties that bind us all together.
That being said, West Virginia's commission certainly is not ignoring the educational aspect of the commemoration. The real question for them and for all such state commissions is how to balance or even blend education and entertainment. This is a question that essentially came up in our most recent blog post by Tim Orr, in which he put forth the idea that Civil War re-enactors could and should do more to educate their audience on the larger ideological, social and political issues at play during the war, in addition to the detailed demonstrations they typically offer of soldiers' daily lives. Re-enactments and battlefield tours are undoubtedly quite popular, and we historians should not turn up our noses at the thought that many Americans might initially see the sesquicentennial as an entertaining public festival. We cannot expect all Americans to commemorate the conflict solely with sober reflection anymore than we can expect all Americans to see this as a solely celebratory, another Fourth of July ritual, for instance. The commemoration offers an opportunity for historians to reach a large, diverse, and curious audience. We should be willing to try to engage, inform, and educate, while acknowledging that much of that audience will be expecting entertainment too.