Red Flags in Museums

Confederate display


“The flag belongs in a museum, not on our streets.” This is the sound bite du jour in current American politics, with Barrack Obama and Jeb Bush among others all claiming in the wake of the Charleston massacre that the Confederate Flag, which flies on the grounds of the South Carolina State House, should be taken down and transferred to a heritage institution in order to remove it from the contemporary and cement it in the past where it belongs. I have however seen several media responses to this that claim the flag has no right to such reverential treatment; that the flag does not belong within the collections let alone on display within a museum.


This of course is not true, a museum collection’s objects are deemed “worthy” by the assertion that people can learn from them, not through a perceived affiliation with “good or bad.” As a compassionate and humane individual living in Glasgow, I am all too often sickened by the banner-waving fanfare of the Orange Order. Yet should a time hopefully come when their antiquated iconography can be retired, it is imperative that some of it should be sent to a museum where it can help teach the values of an inclusive society through addressing the uglier elements of the past. The Confederate Flag should now serve a similar purpose.


Most of the objections to the suggested accession of the flag by a South Carolina museum tend to stem from the view that its display would entail some form of celebratory act, and that by accepting it as physical heritage, the ideology it represents will become “accepted” heritage as well. The flag is not the same as other morally dubious historical artefacts though; Adolf Hitler’s paintings for example, which have little value as political or social history sources, nor have a relevant position in the art history canon. They have no lessons to teach, whereas the Confederate Flag does.


It cannot teach those lessons if its message is censored however, and no museum should exhibit like that anyway. Exhibiting the dark elements of human history is not an acceptance of the values of the time. The Museum of Slavery does not champion the use of a coffle through their display, nor do the jars or hair and teeth at Auchwitz endorse the atrocities that occurred there. These objects are important museum pieces because they provide a physical dimension to history that cannot ever be forgotten. Physical reminders are important for future generations to literally show them of the realities of the past, helping to instil within them a morality that will not permit similar actions in the future.


The Confederate Flag is not a new problem for museums however. Perhaps most notable is the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, which is housed at Battle Abbey, a former monument to the Confederate Movement of the American Civil War. For many years they were troubled by what to do with the great murals of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, which they inherited along with the sight. Historical artefacts and great artworks in their own right, but bearing an explicit sentiment not in keeping with the institution or the society it is part of. Additionally, the museum came under fire from parts of its community for the decision to remove the Confederate Flag from its exterior, having flown there for 131 years. The flag, a tradition and again a historical artefact, gave the museum no option however other than censorship due to it’s “connotations of white heroism and black docility.”


To fly a flag however does suggest a compliance with its message, whereas to hang the flag in a museum does not. This is why the murals at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art can be displayed, but the flag has never again been run up the pole outside. A flag flown is a triumphant thing, and throughout history has often been the greatest statement a group of people can make. In a museum however, a flag can be contextualised amongst other objects, and its history can be interpreted appropriately. It is reduced from a statement, to simply an object.


However, to reduce the Confederate Flag as such may be more challenging for example than the Nazi Swastika. While there is very little public approval of Nazism now, the Confederate Flag is still widely admired in certain areas of America, and the views that it represents are unfortunately still a problem. An article on declares that it is too risky to even hang the flag in a museum because institutions are not yet fully nor demonstrably equipped to tackle the difficult issue of race, far less to surgically remove an active support from something like the Confederate Flag, so deeply ingrained in much of the South Carolina community.


I believe however that these are the challenges museums should be tackling head on. An institution should not exist in fear of discussing an issue because they worry doing so will shed an undeserving light on it, or spread the existence of a message that is unacceptable. Museums should be confident that through effective exhibiting they could alter that message to one of social acceptance and inclusivity. In a more peaceful future I would hope to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan memorialised, and as part of that, I hope the actions of the Taliban in destroying them will be properly addressed, rather than masked to protect potentially impressionable visitors from an awareness of their extremist ideas. Here in Glasgow, if the marches of the Orange Order were to be rightly banned today, as they have been elsewhere for decades, I too would like to see their history effectively tackled by a museum despite the fact that the protestant supremacist views that they represent would remain a present concern. Taking down a flag does not fix a problem, but a well-presented discourse and education such as a museum provides, can. America has the chance to do this with the Confederate Flag now, and I hope they lead the way in doing so.