Windows, Whitewashing, and Worship

Dr. Ashley Luskey is a wonderful Civil War historian who teaches at West Virginia University [we forgive her for being associated with WVU 🙂 ] She has a very thoughtful piece on the stained glass windows at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia depicting confederate generals with Biblical figures and discussions concerning removing those windows.


Dr. Luskey argues the windows should not be removed, and that removing them “would be a whitewashing not only of our history but also of our collective memory.” She says, “And while some might argue that such confrontation and discussions could easily, and should rightfully, take place within the context of classrooms or museums where such stained glass might be neatly and more “safely” tucked away behind exhibit cases with contextualizing text panels surrounding it, do we not lose an enormous amount of context in separating the memorial object from its original location? Furthermore, as historian Aleia Brown has questioned, would these memorial objects even receive adequate interrogation and reinterpretation in many current museums? Shouldn’t we examine and be forced to think about the power of place and the choices involved in the careful placement of memorial objects such as these within their original spatial contexts in order to understand their full meaning, both at the time of their placement and in the one-hundred-plus years since? Why not add contextualizing panels to the windows themselves–or, in this instance, revised brochures, which St. Paul’s docents already distribute to visitors and interested members of the congregation–that better explain the history and complicated, contested symbolism of the windows?” Removing the windows and plaques from the church, she says, would remove “a valuable part of Richmond’s memorial landscape and an educational tool that is now more essential than ever to prompting necessary civic dialogue and social progress in contemporary society. Additionally, to remove these windows is to lend credence to the dangerous fallacy that history is a mere morality play and that any history which we do not find agreeable or in-line with our contemporary morals must be erased from the landscape.”

Kevin Levin has a post on this issue. He writes, “First, I still don’t understand why as public historians we immediately gravitate to the assumption that contemplating the removal of a historical artifact constitutes a willful denial or ‘whitewashing’ of the past. In fact, I can just as easily view this discussion at St. Paul’s (and even the removal of the windows) as an honest and meaningful confrontation with the past.” In addressing Ashley’s point about “the power of place,” Kevin tells us, “if we are going to be sensitive to the ‘power of place’ we need to acknowledge that a church is not a museum. I suspect that for many the concern is not with whether the windows are properly interpreted, but whether they represent the values of a community in a place of worship – or in other words, with whether they bring the community closer to God. How does a public historian balance the desire for interpretation on the one hand and the concerns of churchgoers that the very building in which they worship reflects their values?” He tells us, “if we take our public historians’ cap off for just a second we will see that people throughout the country, including the St. Paul’s community, are doing exactly what Ashley and others would like to see. The difficult subjects of race and other social and political issues are at the center of many of these discussions surrounding what to do with displays of Confederate iconography. They are addressing contemporary issues in the very places where ‘history was originally made and its memory promulgated.’ It is inevitable that some communities will decide that to push those difficult discussions forward it is necessary to remove or relocate a certain object. For other communities they will remain. The difference between the two, however, does not hinge on whether history is viewed as a ‘morality play’ or the desire to ‘whitewash’ the past. The intersection of past and present in a democracy is messy with no clear signposts.”

I find myself in definite agreement with Kevin. I appreciate Ashley’s points. I’ve said a number of times that instead of getting rid of monuments we should interpret them, and I think this theoretically goes for the windows and plaques in St. Paul’s as well, but I disagree that moving them is equivalent to “whitewashing history” or that there is a “morality play” at work. I agree that it’s up to the St. Paul’s community to determine what they should do with the windows. If they are interpreted in a museum instead of the church, then at least they are being interpreted. Kevin’s point is well taken. A church is not a museum, and its purpose is not to be a museum.

Christopher Graham also has a post about this on his blog. He says, “Yet this consensus by historians—that additional interpretation, usually via new labels or other direct, textual, material needs to be added—is astoundingly ill-informed by the literature on visitors and learning in museums produced by museum professionals and museum studies scholars. Without reference to this literature, advocates of interpretive interventions overlook fundamental tenets of current public history practice and ensure that these efforts will have no effect.” According to Graham, “They lean on the notion, defunct for two generations now, that institutional authority delivering content knowledge is the key to museum learning. We know now that anticipated outcomes are just not based on the transfer of interpretive themes, but are conveyed through experience, physical knowing, and satisfaction of identity markers.” He refers to what he calls a critical point from John Falk: “museums’ actual content—exhibits, artifacts—is of such low priority on the visitor’s decision-making process that visitors tend to possess only a vague idea of what they are going to see, if at all. Content barely matters because visitors go to museums to satisfy the urge to have an experience, spend quality time with friends and family, to get away from the world, or the need to scratch an itch to explore. Visitors rarely go to acquire discrete knowledge about specific topics on display.” “The implication,” he says, “is that you can add new interpretive panels to an old monument, but no one will notice because seeking out that information is not the point.” He also makes the point that the church is not a museum. “If I understand correctly, it is a congregation first and as such, it has every right to determine the environment it wishes to worship in. If the congregation wants to signal its identity as a post-Confederate place by removing these windows, then it should. In the dynamic of the ‘shared authority’ ideal—we historians are the authorities that need to share—and that means that we have to know when to let go of the interpretive imperative to the social needs of our communities. Instead, Luskey condemns the congregants as taking the wrong side in a ‘morality play.’ ” He ends with what I think is a really good point: “Calling for more content and interpretation is fine and we all agree, but this discussion needs to move beyond this point and begin offering concrete suggestions, rooted in the literature of audience research and museum learning, about how to define and effect desired outcomes.” I think he made some really good points.

What do you think about this?


  1. I am very conflicted by this. I have always thought that a bright line of distinction existed between a flag on the one hand, and more permanent “structural things” on the other. Flags are designed to be temporary, so they are easily removed. Statues and other things are different.

    That said, I was struck by Kevin’s Facebook post about a “museum of communism” that exists in Prague; apparently many (most? all?) of the statues of Marx and Lenin that used to decorate Prague have been relocated there. It is my understanding that the University of Texas is doing something similar with the Jefferson Davis statue that was removed from campus there. I also am moved to ask—What were the windows like before these windows were installed? Perhaps some recognition that the windows were changed once before is needed.

    The more I reflect on it, as a practicing Christian, the more I am offended by the conflation of saints and the Confederacy. Remove the windows to a museum, and replace them with designs more appropriate to a church. Cost is an issue, however.

    1. Even the “Christian Gentlemen” R. E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson? 🙂

  2. Charles Persinger · · Reply

    LETS GO EERS! I’m glad they will be playing each other again in a few years! Sorry this doesn’t have to do with the topic at hand.

    1. Hopefully we’ll have an offensive line by then.

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