The war we want to forget: Why American art museums are reluctant to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War

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WASHINGTON, DC. 150 years ago this month, seven Southern states seceded from the Union, igniting the American Civil War. A defining event in US history, it lasted four years, claimed nearly a million lives, and led to the abolition of slavery. Yet despite its impact even today, there is no major art exhibition planned in the US in 2011.

It was a different story for the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 2009. Congress created a special commission to plan the nation’s commemoration and there were numerous exhibitions. In Washing­ton, DC, the National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Art and National Museum of American History celebrated Lincoln’s life and explored his image. The New York Historical Society organised the ambitious “Lincoln and New York” show in 2009, a version of which is touring nationally. Art museums are also commemorating the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta’s touring exhibition “Road to Freedom”.

The American Civil War had a major impact on some artists and photographers, with images of the dead, by the likes of Matthew Brady, shock­ing a public more accustomed to romanticised images of conflict.

“America has so many inhibitions about remembering the Civil War, and has had from the beginning,” said Harold Holzer (senior vice president of external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), who is an authority on Lincoln. Holzer was the chief historian for “Lincoln and New York” and served as co-chairman of the Lincoln bicentennial commission. “The reviews that greeted the unveiling of some of the key paintings was mixed. They were critical of the idea of remembering something so unpleasant.” Holzer also added that the centenary of the war in 1961 was “a mess in many ways”. Southern states did not want it used to advance the civil rights movement, insisting on “a romanticised recollection”....

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