Cindi Ross Scoppe

Want a good laugh? $3.6 million to update a relic (of a) museum

Legislators didn’t have to worry about the crowds when they visited the SC Confederate Relic Room in 2015.
Legislators didn’t have to worry about the crowds when they visited the SC Confederate Relic Room in 2015.

HOUSE WAYS and Means Chairman Brian White said he “kind of laughed” when he heard the S.C. Commission on Higher Education had asked for another $1.85 million a year to perform its legislatively mandated duty of vetting colleges’ requests to build huge new buildings, instead of continuing to rubber-stamp them. The Legislature, you see, has a lot of big-money needs to deal with, and not a lot of big money to add to current allocations.

The same day that request was made, the board of the Confederate Relic Room voted to “vigorously advocate” a proposal that deserves a full belly laugh: building a $3.6 million shrine to the last Confederate flag that flew on the State House grounds.

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A $5.3 million shrine to a $52 nylon Confederate flag? Seriously?

Confederate Relic Room’s board not giving up on $3.6 million plan

Why the Confederate flag is still in a box

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Of course the full $3.6 million would not be spent on the display of the $52 mass-produced nylon flag that flew bravely over a monument on the State House grounds for 14 days. That would cost only $500,000, a number that itself is inflated by electronic screens scrolling the names of South Carolina’s Civil War dead — an extra the Legislature did not request when it ordered the Relic Room to provide an “appropriate display” for the flag that happened to be on the poll when lawmakers voted in 2015 to end the 50-year tradition of flying the Confederate colors at our seat of government.

But as the Confederate fetishists tasked with producing the “appropriate display” plan have demonstrated, it’s not just colleges that need someone vetting their grandiose expansion plans. The “appropriate display” is just the taking-off point for the Relic Room’s overseers. They want to build a whole new wing for the visitor-challenged museum, and a grand new entrance, and they want hundreds of thousands of dollars to conserve and exhibit apparently authentic battle flags.

I cannot imagine that lawmakers had anything this elaborate in mind — and nothing any lawmakers have said publicly since the Relic Room first pitched this proposal more than a year ago indicates that they did. They — by which I mean the overwhelming majority of our lawmakers, who realized it was time to retire Confederate flag worship as our official state religion — simply wanted to quell a backlash that was starting to form in the 11th hour of the debate. So they promised a “respectful display.”

I’m sure “respectful display” meant to them what it would to most people: Put it in a case. Yes, even a new case if you just can’t bring yourself to rotate out some of the current displays, as museums routinely do. Under glass, with an appropriate explanation. End of story.

But legislators forgot about the problem with unaccountable part-time board members who are tasked with spending other people’s money. They are unaccountable, and unconcerned with price — or propriety. They are concerned only with their fetishes.

That same board, by the way, shot down a proposal by museum director Allen Roberson to scrap their grandiose plan, spend $200,000 to convert a couple of offices into display space and be done with it. After all, they’d already come down from their initial proposal to spend $5.2 million; would the penny-pinching demands never end?

Mr. Roberson, by the way, said the nylon replica should not be displayed alongside “military history artifacts” that bear the bullet holes, gunpowder residue and bloodstains of battle. It’s a sensible argument, but it’s at odds with the resolution the House passed in conjunction with the flag removal law, which said the replica “must be displayed alongside other distinguished military exhibits covering the Civil War.” Which suggests, again, that lawmakers did not intend to send the museum on a spending spree.

The museum’s board members cling to the notion that their $3.6 million plan is viable because the Legislature didn’t formally reject it last year. Of course, the Legislature rarely rejects anything formally; it just lets ideas wither away. But there’s no reason to think lawmakers want to expand even the “military museum” portion of the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, as it was rebranded a few years back in an attempt to bolster its legislative support, if not its popularity,

That’s because South Carolina already has a perfectly fine military museum, at our state’s military headquarters, just a few miles away on Bluff Road. A museum to which the Legislature pledged $380,000 in wish-list money last year, while offering nothing to the Confederate version.

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The S.C. Military Museum was authorized by state law in 1998 and opened in 2007, the second oldest and now fourth largest National Guard museum in the nation, director and curator Buddy Sturgis told me recently. As the name suggests, its collection extends far beyond the Guard, covering, its website explains, “the complete military history of our State from the time British boots first touched Carolina soil to present-day operations worldwide.”

It’s an expansive and impressive museum, and I’m sure Mr. Sturgis and his staff would be happy to display some of the actual military memorabilia that’s cluttering up the Relic Room — which would free up space to provide a proper display for that nylon flag.

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