Exit Through the Gift Shop: Historical Memory and Gift Shops at Civil War Historic Sites

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Historical Memory and Gift Shops at Civil War Historic Sites

When I was a graduate student living in Indiana, I made a point of visiting historical sites connected to the Civil War throughout the state. One of my favorites was the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum in Crawfordsville. Situated in a quiet neighborhood in northwest Indiana, the site preserves and interprets the study where Wallace maintained his personal library. Built between 1895 and 1898, the $30,000 structure was constructed from royalties Wallace earned through his 1880 book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, one of the most popular works of Christian literature since its release and the subject of a famous 1959 film starring Charlton Heston. Visitors to the site learn about Wallace’s life as a Civil War general in the United States Army, his stint as Governor of New Mexico territory, and his talents as a writer.[1]

Two Confederate kepis for sale at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum in 2014. Photo courtesy of the author.

During my most recent visit to the site a few years ago, something struck me while going through the museum gift shop. As I peered through a selection of books and other assorted items, I saw two Civil War kepis with Confederate flag stickers stuck onto the front of the hats. Even stranger, the label on top of the hats described them as “enlisted” hats, and not a single item associated with the United States military—the one Wallace actually fought for—could be found in the gift shop. What were these items doing at the museum of a U.S. General? More specifically, what did mean to see these hats at a museum dedicated to General Wallace, whose efforts at the battle of Monocacy delayed Confederate General Jubal Early’s unsuccessful march to Fort Stevens, a mere five miles from the nation’s capital?[2]

Perhaps these items reinforce Wallace’s desire for sectional reconciliation, a theme he frequently discussed as a popular speaker at Civil War veteran commemorations. Through these speeches he popularized a common belief that battlefields and blue-gray reunions were places for discussing military strategy, not politics. At the dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Battlefield National Military Park in 1895, for example, Wallace complained that “I am truly unable to understand the Northern soldier who would persecute a soldier of the Confederacy. If there is one such in this assemblage, this is the place above all other for introspection . . . Remembrance! Of what? Not the cause, but the heroism it invoked.”[3]

Whatever may have been the motivation for placing Confederate kepis at the museum of a Union General, the sight provoked within me a number of thoughts about the role of gift shops at Civil War historic sites and what they can tell us about the ways people remember the past.

For one, memory scholars have utterly neglected the role of gift shops and commercialized kitsch in shaping memories of the Civil War. Countless books in recent years have studied postwar reminisces from veterans, public iconography, historical marker texts, museum exhibits, ghost tours, and interpretive programs at historic sites, but almost nothing on gift shops.[4] What is particularly curious about this omission lies in the quantity and prevalence of the items sold in these spaces. Gift shop items ranging from teddy bears, postcards, clothing, posters, toy guns, magnets, replicas of historic documents, and books are sold at these places. They often represent the only tangible item countless millions of people take home from their visit to a historic site. As museum professional and exhibit designer Margaret Middleton persuasively argues, the gift shop represents the values of a museum just as much as its exhibits. The leaders of these institutions, however, often separate the two:

The offerings in the exhibits reflect the museum’s values, which educators and exhibit developers take very seriously. However, when it comes to offerings in the gift shop, a lot of museums will defer culpability. Our gift shop is run by an external vender, they shrug. We don’t pick what gets sold or how it’s displayed. Maybe true, but do you really have no say? What about that time you demanded that the cafe (also run by an external vendor) take peanuts off the menu? . . . Our values are only as strong as our demonstrations of those values. The museum’s mission shouldn’t stop at the gift shop door.[5]

These points lead to my second thought: what meanings do these material artifacts evoke within historic site visitors? How do those meanings interact with visitor experiences at other places within the historic site? For example, how might an interpretive program depicting the horrors of war convey a different message from the one conveyed in a gift shop where toy guns are sold? How might a program on the history of American slavery be compromised when there are no books on the topic that are sold in the gift shop? The National Park Service announced shortly after the Charleston AME Massacre in June 2015 that they would be pulling all Confederate flag standalone items from their gift shops, but what were they doing there in the first place? What did it mean to have those items on display while promoting the Civil War Sesquicentennial’s theme of “Civil War to Civil Rights”?[6] For scholars of Civil War memory and memory scholars in general, there is a treasure trove of research material waiting at historic site gift shops throughout the country.

A typical gift shop at a Civil War historic site. Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

History teachers and professors can also use gift shops to teach their students about historical memory. The next time your class visits a Civil War historic site, design an activity that includes a tour of the gift shop. Using the above questions or ones of your own creation, have your students consider the messages the gift shop conveys and contemplate how those messages interact with other learning materials at the historic site and in their classroom. Just like the exhibits, artifacts, and marker texts displayed at a historic site, the gift shop can offer a significant learning experience for students in and of itself.

I do not mean to suggest that all Civil War historic sites should sell the same items in their gift shops or that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to the questions I raise. But a critical appraisal of the content in these gift shops by scholars, teachers, and public history professionals is desperately needed. Hopefully this essay can be a starting point for such discussions in the future.

 

[1] The General Lew Wallace Study & Museum’s website is ben-hur.com, highlighting the strong emphasis on Wallace’s literary talents as a central theme of the historic site. To learn more, see “General Lew Wallace Study & Museum,” General Lew Wallace Study & Museum, 2018, accessed February 8, 2018. https://www.ben-hur.com/.

[2] Gail Stephens, Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2010).

[3] Henry V. Boyton, ed., Dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, September 18-20, 1895 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896), 274-279. See also Nick Sacco, “‘This Will Be Our History and Our Glory’: Civil War Memories and the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana.” Paper presented at Indiana Association of Historians Conference, Anderson, Indiana, March 8, 2014, accessed February 17, 2018. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1XB4yoBCxyCKxSXeNCtGAQuLxDBV2RfngGLn1nCqSiiY/.

[4] Two studies that very briefly explore Civil War gift shops are Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) and Megan A. Conrad, “From Tragedy to Tourism: The Battle of Gettysburg and Consumerism.” Master’s thesis, Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, 2015, accessed February 16, 2018. https://scholarsphere.psu.edu/downloads/5qf85n935d.

[5] Margaret Middleton, “It’s Time for Sexism to Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Medium, December 4, 2017, accessed February 15, 2018, https://medium.com/@magmidd/its-time-for-sexism-to-exit-through-the-gift-shop-bb5a4b559831.

[6] Doug Stanglin, “National Park Service Pulls Confederate Flag Items from Gift Shops,” USAToday, June 25, 2015, accessed February 16, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/06/25/national-park-service-confederate-flag-sales-items/29264025/.

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Ranger at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/.

6 Replies to “Exit Through the Gift Shop: Historical Memory and Gift Shops at Civil War Historic Sites”

  1. I’d be interested in seeing the results of such a study. I’m afraid the only theme common to all shops would be “profit”.

  2. Well done. My spouse is a serious gift shop junkie, and much of what he brings home is just that–junk. We must have the world’s largest collection of Civil War Battlefield coffee mugs. So much more could be done in this area. Remember, this is where many young children get their first glimpse into history. That alone is enough for someone to consider how the place is stocked. Again, thank you for this insightful look at public history.

    1. Hi Meg,

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment! I too have collected my share of gift shop items at historic sites throughout the years. You are exactly right that many young children get a glimpse of history through the things their parents purchase for them in the gift shop. Margaret Middleton is 100% right in her essay when she argues that the site’s mission extends into the gift shop.

  3. You raise a good point. In natural history museums and their shops, many museums have active discussion about selling fossils that may be legal to sell but are fossils ethical to sell? Is the purpose of the shop to support the mission of the museum or to maximize a museum’s sources of revenue? Where is the line between mission and revenue? I agree that some research into the evolution of museum gift shops would be a useful topic for historian or museum studies academic.

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