To Show or Not To Show?

ConfederateCoatConfederate General Patrick Cleburne’s frock coat is currently on exhibit at the Museum of the Confederacy’s new Appomattox branch, which opened in March 2012. Some visitors, like the one who posted this photo to a Facebook community page last month, assumed that the Museum of the Confederacy was exhibiting the frock coat as the garment Cleburne was wearing when he died at the Battle of Franklin (outside Nashville, Tennessee) on November 30, 1864. The damage, then, made sense as a result of exploding shells.

Another Facebook poster commented, “this worn tattered coat sends chills down your back, if you arent a true gray southerner, this pic proably does nothing to you, my great grandfather fought with the macon county guards..james o. dixon, there is something deep inside that when you look at this pic it touches you, and i can see how when the brave confederates saw such horror, it inspired them to give thier all,,god bless the south!!”

Other comments followed, debating the cause of the losses:

  • “Unfortunately, according to the museum officials, that is not actually the coat that General Cleburne was wearing when he was killed.”
  • “That’s definitely moth damage from [what] you can see. I’m not sure where he was hit or how many times but none of those holes seem to go through the coat’s inner liner.”
  • “That’s not all moth damage gents. General Cleburne was hit no less than 40 times. Thats right, his body was literally ripped to shreds by Federal musketry and cannister.”
  • “The museum has already said he wasn’t wearing the coat. I suspect if he was in this coat when he was hit 40 times, there might be some BLOOD stains on it. Most of these holes are tiny except for the one on the right hip. Moth holes. If these were canister shot or musket ball holes, the coat would be soaked in blood.”

The photo and subsequent commentary were interesting enough to come to our C2C team’s attention. When the damage to an artifact detracts from the experience of the object’s original form, museum staff often choose to store that piece until conservation can be funded and accomplished. Why did MOC staff decide to exhibit this piece without conservation to camouflage the losses? MOC Curator Cathy Wright explained that staff debated that question at length. They ultimately decided not to conserve the piece because of the tremendous cost, as well as the significant alterations to the original fabric that conservation would involve. They also judged it was important to exhibit the frock coat–one of the few artifacts available to represent the war’s western front.

The MOC’s website contains a brief description of the piece’s provenance and condition.  “This uniform coat was sent to a family friend after Cleburne was killed at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee. Thirty years after the event, the donor of the coat found it ‘so dirty and so moth-eaten’ that she ‘hesitated about sending it on to Richmond…’ This is the first time in many years that this unique artifact has been on public display.” This description and the caption beneath the accompanying photo indicate that Cleburne was wearing the coat at the Battle of Franklin.  A museum staff member answering the MOC phone lines explained that the Cleburne was carrying, rather than wearing, the coat into his final battle and the garment fell off into the mud. According to the staffer, the damage, then, resulted from “rot” rather than enemy fire.

In the Facebook discussion quoted above, the damage became the main idea the artifact conveyed, for at least one group of beholders, and it inspired controversy among them. As we’ve written previously, exhibits can and should be forums to present various possible answers to questions that artifacts can pose. The piece’s damage certainly generated interest and discussion, which is a wonderful result of providing access to engaging artifacts. However, in the case of the Cleburne coat, the piece’s condition and its cause(s) dominate any other point the MOC hoped to present, leading to confusion or even misinterpretation.

What do you think? Should the piece be exhibited without conservation? If so, should its display be altered in any way?

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About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on December 14, 2012, in collections access, Exhibitions, museums and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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