Given its particular mission and position as the former Museum of the Confederacy, The American Civil War Museum requires a certain set of values from its employees. With the museum’s new mission to change ideas and narratives about the Civil War, employees must be patient, open-minded, and decidedly invested in those conversations about the Confederacy, Civil War, and racism in Richmond. In my first full week with the development office, I’ve quickly learned that patience is the most important factor when dealing with members, donors, and prospective members. The American Civil War can mean very different things to different people, and when dealing with members and donors first-hand, it’s incredibly important to keep all those different perspectives in mind.
After a week of working on database management, editing, mailing, and other written communication projects, I spent Saturday acting as a direct membership representative. This experience gave me a more clear picture of why people do or do not retain their memberships. While I’m all for the museum’s new mission to bring slave and civilian narratives to light in the new exhibits, some visitors readily expressed discontent with the lack of artifacts dedicated to the KKK, or less of a focus on Robert E. Lee’s part in the war, or the lack of Confederate flags in the gift shop while chatting with me at the welcome desk. Even though the leadership at the museum, from the foundation president to the weekend shift supervisor, understand the worthiness of moving the visitor experience away from strictly Confederate narratives, sometimes visitors simply do not see the value.
As I quickly learned from the other historical interpreters and museum staff, the best way to handle these disgruntled visitors is to acknowledge their perspective, but then kindly remind them of how those other narratives which were missing from the original Museum of the Confederacy present a more interesting and dynamic take on the war. From the development standpoint, we have to keep an open mind so that we can acknowledge every reason someone may support the museum, as frustrating as those reasons can be. However, with more delicate communication strategies, we can also remind visitors to remain open to new ideas as well.
I’ve learned these more delicate communication strategies largely on the job, whether from comments in meetings, suggestions from the museum staff, or picking up on the very polite and professional double entendres used to describe instances of racism or otherwise distasteful narratives. I’ve found that many of the native Virginians who work with the museum frequently use these double entendres, like describing someone as “a Lee man” to indicate their Confederate inclinations. Sometimes, these double entendres can be a bit frustrating, as it can seem more effective to just call things as they are. However, as easy as that may be in informal discussions, professional settings require those values of patience and open mindedness to keep the workplace conflicts to a minimum. While discussions about the most recent museum news can make for interesting debates, getting stuck in the details of an article or comment from a visitor can waste time and detract from those more positive narratives for which the museum strives. The office culture is largely informal when completing lesser tasks and projects, but formality is naturally still required while conducting business with larger donors or board members. In general, the office is an open and progressive space, as everyone is excited about the future of the museum and changing the discussion around the Civil War. I’m grateful that I was immediately placed on a first name basis with all the other museum employees, though the particular kind of communication necessary to conduct business around the topic of the Confederacy is going to take some getting used to.