For some reason, Mayor Eric Papenfuse would like to shut down an effective tool of historical education. When he first took office, the mayor wanted to illegally raise the rent charged to the National Civil War Museum to the point where the museum would be unable to afford to stay open. The good folks at the museum successfully fought off this ignorant challenge, but now the mayor is back at it, trying to close down the museum for good and rob us of another historical education tool.
The National Civil War Museum is the brainchild of former mayor Stephen Reed, who acquired the artifacts at the core of the museum’s collection and oversaw the building and opening of the museum in the hope that it would attract visitors to Harrisburg. The City of Harrisburg owns the museum and most of its artifacts, but it’s operated by a private nonprofit organization. It’s built on a site that was previously abandoned.
Former Mayor Reed is in hot water of late, being charged with 499 counts of corruption, theft, and bribery. See stories here and here. Most of the stories connect Reed with the museum and point out that no battles were fought in Harrisburg. The folks who write that, like the current mayor, are probably among those most in need of visiting the museum and learning from it. They might then understand that Harrisburg was a major target of Lee’s invasion in the summer of 1863.
Current Mayor Papenfuse is using this turn of events to renew calls to get rid of the museum. See stories here, here, here, and here. He’s basing his campaign to increase historical ignorance on an outright lie. He dishonestly claims, “there can be no doubt that that museum stands as a monument to corruption and it is a chapter we have to close for the city of Harrisburg.” In fact, nothing in the grand jury’s investigation even implies the museum or its artifacts had anything to do with any corrupt actions. This is not the first time Papenfuse has lied about the museum. I don’t know what he has against historical education, but he’s clearly unhinged with regard to the museum. It’s particularly confusing because Papenfuse owns one of my favorite book stores, The Midtown Scholar. Perhaps Papenfuse just doesn’t like the museum because it’s part of Reed’s legacy and it’s part of a personal vendetta he has against the former mayor, and he doesn’t care that historical education of children will suffer. That possibility at least makes sense.
I’ve been to the museum several times. I enjoy it immensely. The folks there have done an outstanding job in presenting a balanced and accurate view of the Civil War. On most of my visits during the school year, groups of students are going through the museum as well, learning about our nation’s most divisive time and learning about the war that was a crossroads for our nation’s history. Anyone visiting the Gettysburg area will be well served by a side trip up to Harrisburg to visit this museum. It’s not expensive and it offers a variety of discounts. They have lectures at various times of the year, and they also offer a hands-on experience with some artifacts during the day. The museum uses a wonderful video as a tool to follow throughout the war, showing the experiences of a number of people in the war, from Union and Confederate soldiers to civilians on both sides as well as enslaved and formerly enslaved people, showing the effects of the war on not only people who went to war but also on people who stayed home. There’s also a video featuring my former professor, James I. Robertson Jr., giving an overview of the war through the major battles fought during the conflict. It truly is a superb educational experience. Next time you’re in the area, give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.