Allen Roberson stands with guest curator Lynn Robertson of the Columbia Museum of Art in the vaulted cistern that serves as special exhibit space for the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.
There, one of only four remaining full-time Relic Room employees and a part-timer carefully hang artwork by Xanthus Smith, considered one of the foremost American military painters of the 19th century.
The 47 maritime drawings and paintings of Civil War ships in and around Port Royal Sound created by Smith, a Union naval officer from Philadelphia, are part of the Southern Maritime Collection – 10,000 Civil War paintings, drawings, documents, prints, posters, models and other maritime items collected by Charles V. Peery, a retired Charleston doctor.
The state purchased the items for $4.5 million amid controversy in 2001. The Relic Room staff of professional curators was asked to watch over the collection, even though it is stored at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, home of the Confederate submarine H.L.Hunley.
“I advocated getting some these out to the public,” Roberson, the relic room’s director, said of the exhibit, which opens Friday. “This is a way to get some of them out to the public.”
As the Relic Room reaches the end of its 120th anniversary observance, it faces several challenges, including some that are ongoing and others that were not expected.
Although the name ties it to the Civil War, the museum’s mission is to educate South Carolinians on all of the state’s military history. For 120 years, the museum in its various iterations and locations has collected, preserved and exhibited artifacts, images and documents that tell the story of war’s impact on the state.
The museum collects, maintains and stores items from the American Revolution through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, led S.C. National Guard troops in combat in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. His uniform and other items are on display or in storage at the museum.
He called the Relic Room “the gold standard” among military museums in the state. He noted that in programming and tours, the exhibits and staff avoid politics or taking sides in the issues that caused the Civil War.
“The name gives the impression it’s just about the Confederacy, but it goes far beyond that,” he said. “It goes to the impact South Carolinians have had in these major global events. There are very important stories there.”
Smith added the museum has also served as an ongoing repository for the stories of South Carolinians who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, “and no one else is doing that.”
But since 2015, the museum has been known more for a gift it received from the people of South Carolina that it did not want and did not have the resources to handle – a modern nylon replica of a Confederate battle flag. The flag flew on the State House grounds for 14 days and was removed on July 10, 2015, amid roiling political controversy after the shooting of nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston.
The ongoing controversy has cost the museum visitors and diverted staff time.
It was Roberson who, with white gloves on, accepted the $52 flag from a state patrol honor guard, took it back to his tiny museum and locked it up in a vault with all the care of the Shroud of Turin, per the direction of state law. The flag – with no significance in military history – sits amid scores of artifacts from all of America’s wars that the Relic Room doesn’t have room to display.
When the flag was removed from the State House grounds, the General Assembly dictated that it not only be displayed, but included in an exhibit that honors the 22,000 or so South Carolina soldiers killed in the Civil War.
In response to the request, the Relic Room’s governing commission came up with an ambitious plan to add a new upper floor to the museum, allowing the commission to build not only the exhibit surrounding the nylon flag, but additional space to display other Civil War items in storage and add a new entrance and event space, of which the Relic Room has none.
The price tag was $3.6 million. The proposal was not well received.
Critics, many of whom had never visited the museum, suggested it be moved to Charleston. Others advocated displaying some of the stored museum pieces at another unaccredited museum in Columbia with no professional staff. The Relic Room Commission stood pat despite the criticism.
“We saw that we could be part of the solution” to the controversy surrounding the removal of the Confederate flag, Roberson said. “We can bring some sense of resolution to this issue.”
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, the Capital City’s first African-American mayor, campaigned for 30 years to bring the Confederate flag first off the State House dome and then off the grounds. He said all South Carolinians have to be “intellectually honest” about their history, and the state should uphold its promise to the flag’s supporters.
“As a student leader, as a young professional, business leader and mayor, I was among the chorus who called for the battle flag to be removed from a place of sovereignty at the state Capitol and moved to a museum, “ he said. “Now that it has been moved to the Relic Room, the state should provide the resources to fulfill the General Assembly’s mandate.”
But the nylon flag is a social and political symbol, not a military one. Its interpretation does not fall within the purview of the Relic Room’s mission when it was founded in 1896.
The museum is the oldest military museum in South Carolina. It is also the third oldest museum of any type in the state, behind ones in Charleston and Florence.
It is one of only 13 of the state’s 224 museums to earn national accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. It also received a 90 percent rating from the American Association of State and Local History.
State Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Richland, took a large group of lawmakers, including many African-American lawmakers, to the Relic Room for the first time when he was helping forge a compromise to remove the flag from the State House grounds.
He said those lawmakers, like many other people who haven’t visited the museum before, were struck by the quality and balance of the exhibits. For example, the museum includes the flag of an African-American regiment that fought for the Union along South Carolina’s coast.
“There is something there for everybody,” he said. “It’s a military museum for the whole state. It should be treated as a treasure because it is.”
‘A holistic approach’
The Relic Room must reapply for accreditation this year, a process that takes months. The first time it earned accreditation, in 2004, the effort took three years.
“Getting the ‘Confederate’ Relic Room approved by a Washington-based agency wasn’t easy, but we got it,” Roberson said.
However, cuts made to the museum’s budget during the Great Recession has reduced the museum’s staff to just Roberson and three full-time staffers who do everything from build exhibits and conduct tours to plan programming and take tickets at the front desk. And the ongoing controversy over the flag “is sucking up our staff time,” he said.
John Sherrer, director of cultural resources for Historic Columbia, said that earning accreditation is difficult and exhaustive.
“Being accredited is a mark of professional excellence,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s something organizations strive to attain. It doesn’t just focus on one thing, it’s a holistic approach – curation, conservation, public access and programming, scholarship, professional administration standards and financial accountability. It’s all-encompassing, and they meet that.”
The Xanthus Smith exhibit runs through September. At the same time, the museum is building an exhibit to honor Fort Jackson’s 100th anniversary, which culminates in June.
In December, it will unveil a major new exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, and simultaneously a second exhibit on an Army Reserve 360th Civil Affairs Brigade that served from World War II on and included many prominent South Carolinians including the late Strom Thurmond, the former governor and longtime U.S. senator.
“A lot of South Carolina politicians were there,” Roberson said. “Don Fowler. Joe Wilson. Strom Thurmond was the most notable.”
And also on Friday, when the Xanthus Smith exhibit opens, retired Lt. Gen. E.G. “Buck” Shuler, once commander of the storied Eighth Air Force and now vice chairman of Savannah’s National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, will talk about the organization’s history at noon. His talk is the sixth of nine “lunch and learn” sessions at the museum in the 2016-2017 season.
‘It hurt us’
Budget cuts beginning in 2008 have made it impossible for Roberson to fill his seven full-time positions, he said. In fiscal year 2008-2009, the general fund appropriation for the Relic Room was $920,870. Last year it was $825,772 despite the burden of dealing with the flag controversy.
In addition, the flag issues and lack of staff have cut into Roberson’s time to raise funds. And the flag controversy has caused attendance at the Relic Room to drop from 24,800 in 2015 to about 19,800 in 2016.
“And before that we had five straight years of increasing attendance,” Roberson said. “Last year was the lowest attendance in 10 years.”
The museum lost a $50,000 donation because of the controversy surrounding the State House flag, Roberson said.
“It hurt us,” he said.
Also, having the State House flag on site has caused some unpleasant phone calls and exchanges on the museum’s Facebook page.
Additional funds to pay for another full-time employee and a security guard are included in this year’s budget request, which is now being considered by the General Assembly. The museum is asking for an additional $25,000 for a security guard and some added security features, and $67,000 for the new employee’s salary and benefits
The museum is also asking for $300,000 to assist in collecting artifacts and building the Vietnam exhibit.
“I don’t know of any other museum in the state that is planning a major exhibit on Vietnam,” Roberson said.
The budget does not include, however, any funds for display of the State House flag. That money would have to come from the Legislature, Roberson said. And the General Assembly has so far been silent on the matter.
In the meantime, Roberson, an historian who is leery of both politics and the press, is caught firmly in the vise grip of both.
“All I want to talk about is our exhibits,” he said.
Relic Room facts
1896: Founded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to memorialize Civil War. Opened June 24 in the South Caroliniana Library
1901: Museum moves to the S.C. State House
1960: Museum moves to the S.C. Archives Building
1970: Museum moves to the WW I War Memorial Building on the University of South Carolina campus
2002: After extensive redesign, museum reopens in Columbia Mills Building adjacent to the State Museum
2004: Museum receives national accreditation
2007: Museum increases in size with a new atrium entrance and exhibit space in the mill’s cistern
2015: Museum become a state agency when the Budget and Control Board is dissolved
2015: Museum receives the replica Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds
About the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum
Location: 301 Gervais St., Columbia
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. First Sunday of every month, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults, $6; 62 and over, $5; Children 10 to 17, $3; Children under 10, free.