As the Warehouse District evolves from an industrial neighborhood into an artists' community featuring a burgeoning "Museum Row," New Orleans residents rejoice in the transformation.
Many of the warehouses that once stored grain, cotton or lumber are now high-rent apartments or upscale galleries. New Orleanians welcome the other entities that have sprung up over the years -- the National D-Day Museum, the Louisiana Children's Museum, the Contemporary Arts Center and now the planned Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
But no museum is connected to the city's past like the Confederate Museum. The facility, which bills itself as Louisiana's oldest museum, is housed in an imposing structure at 929 Camp St., formerly a Confederate veterans' haven. Confederate President Jefferson Davis' body once lay in state at this site. The Confederate Museum's impressive holdings make it the nation's second-largest museum of its type.
Yet today the century-old Confederate Museum sits on the burgeoning Museum Row as an anachronism -- and, for many, an embarrassment that even goes unmentioned in some tourist-oriented pamphlets touting the area.
Make no mistake: this is no "Civil War" museum. Its very name honors the Confederacy, and supporters regard it as a fitting homage to the cause for which so many people sacrificed their homes, their families, and their lives. Others view the museum as a shameful tribute to a lifestyle that embraced slavery as an economic engine. When news spread that the museum might face a makeover against its curators' will, emotions erupted all around town -- indeed, around the country.
Last year, it was reported that officials at the Ogden Museum -- which is finishing construction on two buildings on either side of the Confederate Museum -- bought the Confederate Museum as part of a takeover plan to make the Ogden a giant complex of Southern art and history. Ogden officials reportedly planned to either evict the Confederates from the space or retool it into a museum that better reflected both sides of the conflict.
Ownership of the building remains in question. The property had been owned by the Howard Memorial Library Association and maintained by the Louisiana Historical Association since 1891. About a century later, the Howard Memorial Library Association transferred the property to Tulane University, and the Louisiana Historical Association transferred its role in the museum's caretaking to an organization now known as Memorial Hall Museum Inc. That's the group fighting to keep the Confederate Museum as it is.
Tulane, in turn, sold the property to the University of New Orleans Foundation, the Ogden's primary financial backer. The two groups are now squabbling over who has the rights to the building. Memorial Hall Museum says the property was transferred to Tulane on condition that it honor the intentions of the Howard Memorial Library Association, and maintain it as a Confederate museum. Therefore, they claim, it doesn't matter who owns the building; they are in charge of its content. Both sides have filed suit, claiming dominion over the property.
UNO Foundation president Elizabeth Williams and Ogden director J. Richard Gruber insist they never wanted to take over the Confederate Museum. They say they began negotiating years ago with the Louisiana Historical Association to build a crucial tunnel connecting Ogden's two buildings under the Confederate Museum; in exchange, the Confederate Museum would receive needed fire exits. Williams and Gruber charge that they were misrepresented in news articles that quoted them as saying they had plans for the Confederate Museum. "We have literally no design, no floor plan for that building," says Gruber. "If we can just get that tunnel, we'll be happy."
The Confederate Museum's vice president and chief spokesman, James Carriere, did not return calls for comment. He has reportedly said that UNO officials threatened to evict the Confederates, rid the museum of its battle memorabilia, and turn the building into a glossy new space that would fit Ogden's contemporary design.
A Civil District Court judge will decide ownership of the building. But the brouhaha surrounding the issue is a good indication that the entity deserves careful consideration.
We hope that, regardless of the legal outcome, the UNO Foundation and Memorial Hall Museum officials will pledge to work with one another to craft a solution that would accurately preserve and represent this conflicted time in history. There should be a place on Museum Row for a world-class institution devoted to documenting and interpreting the Civil War. The Confederate Museum should welcome the opportunity to receive help to become such an institution. Indeed, no city is more appropriate for this endeavor than New Orleans, the home of supporters and fighters for both sides of the war.
But just as history itself is being continually revised, so are museums. In the case of the Confederate Museum, a name change to "The Civil War Museum" would be one good step. Beyond that, a workable and civil plan between the Confederate Museum and the Ogden Museum would serve as an asset to both entities, and to this vital district of New Orleans.