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Dr. John Murphy was a passionate and energetic lifelong collector of Confederate long arms. He amassed a fabulous collection of about 200 of these rare and iconic weapons. He shared his knowledge and passion with arms collectors and historians by publishing two landmark books, one on Rifles and Muskets of the Confederacy, the other on Carbines and Musketoons. Those books remain the standard works on those subjects.
In 1999, as Dr. Murphy reached his later years, he decided to keep the collection intact and to preserve it for future generations rather than to break it up and sell it. After much consideration, he chose to place it on permanent loan at a beautiful regional museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. Part of the reason was the space itself, the other part was the location of Greensboro—in the heart of the area where so many of those arms were produced for the Confederacy. He also contributed a large sum of money to that museum for the purpose of properly showcasing his collection. The loan condition included a clause by which ownership of that collection would pass to
the museum upon his death. The collection remains on display and has made that regional museum into a “destination museum” for arms enthusiasts and historians.
There are probably thousands of small to medium sized regional museums around the country (and the world). Some are merely one-room venues with only a few local artifacts and with an enthusiastic local volunteer to speak to those who wander in. Others are medium to large institutions, some with excellent general collections, and are a regular source of pleasure for locals and for “passing-through” type visitors. Very few achieve the status of becoming
“Destinations”, holding displays important enough to lure visitors to their cities based principally on world-class study collections. The Greensboro Historical Society achieved that distinction, based in part because of the Murphy Collection.
First, it is clear that when Dr. Murphy made this generous gift, he intended and trusted that the collection remain on display on a permanent basis after his death.
Second, placing this valuable and irreplaceable collection in storage removes it from accessibil-ity to historians, collectors, students and others interested in the material culture of the mid-nineteenth century.
Third, artifacts in storage are often out-of-sight and deterioration can occur without the regular attention of a skilled conservator.
Fourth, without our knowing what is planned to replace the collection, the museum may lose its distinct and unique “destination” appeal.
Finally, such a betrayal of trust can impact fu-ture donations of collections to all museums, since it demonstrates the fact that once control passes to the management of those institutions, promises, implied or implicit, are valueless.
We have no idea why this action is being considered. We do note, however, that nationally there is a distinct and widespread movement to “whitewash” the history of the Civil War. Schools are being renamed, the Confederate battle flag is being shunned and heroic statures are being hidden away. No matter how hard we try, we can’t rewrite history because we feel certain aspects are unpalatable.
Perhaps this trend is being rethought. The newly opened National Museum of African-American History and Culture at the Smithsonian, for example, has chosen to address the subject of slavery head-on rather than to try to rationalize it in any way.
We invite our subscribers to express their feelings by dropping an e-mail to the Director of the Greensboro Historical Society at email@example.com
A copy of this Editorial was provided to Ms. Hart prior to publication. She provided the following response:
Greensboro History Museum
So Many Stories, So Little Space
A Discussion of the Exhibition and Access to the
John and Isabelle Murphy Confederate Firearms Collection
In order to showcase the exhibit, I Want the Wide American Earth & Generations: Voices of Greensboro’s Asian Pacific American Families, the Murphy Confederate Longarms Collection exhibit is temporarily not on view. The Murphy Confederate Longarms Collection exhibit will reopen in March 2017, when the Wide American Earth closes. It will then close permanently in June to make way for a new exhibit on WWI and its impact in Greensboro.
The museum administration has committed a significant investment of time and funding to the proper care, research and display of this rare and important collection. We are fulfilling all donor commitments and, as much as possible, donor wishes. With so many stories to tell about our city, as we strive to fulfill our mission as Greensboro’s history museum, we need to maintain flexibility in managing our gallery space.
Greensboro History Museum staff is working on a variety of exciting, cutting-edge ways to increase digital access to the Murphy collection. We will be exhibiting artifacts from the collection that are connected to Guilford County in our Voices of a City exhibit. We are also creating a pocket gallery exhibit area sharing the story of the Murphy Collection and display a portion of this unique collection.
• The collection, which is wholly owned by the Greensboro Historical Museum, Inc., will not be sold. The museum will continue its role as steward of this important accessioned collec-tion, meeting professional standards as an American Alliance of Museums Accredited Mu-seum and a Smithsonian Affiliate.
• The spring closing of the Murphy Confederate Longarms exhibit does not eliminate inter-pretation and artifact display at the museum of the Civil War period of Greensboro’s history. There are several galleries in our Greensboro: Voices of a City exhibition that deal with the Civil War and the men and women of the time, most notably Debating Liberty and Service and Sacrifice.
• The decision to close the exhibition is based on the need for flexible exhibition space for larger traveling and in-house temporary exhibitions. The exhibition has been up for 16 years, making it the second oldest exhibit at the museum. It was installed in gallery space built and designed for temporary exhibits in 1990. This exhibit was created by museum staff to high professional interpretation standards. The need for physical space for new exhibits is the driving force behind this change.
• The museum will be increasing digital access of this collection through 3D imaging, VR and an online collections database. Information, including images, of the complete collection will be available on-line. Some of the projects need additional funding, but are scheduled to commence in spring 2017. As public awareness of this collection grows through online resources, curators from accredited museums may contact GHM to discuss borrowing artifacts for exhibition.
• Physical access will still be possible for the entire collection, as it is our policy for all artifacts and archival material. A call to the curatorial team will allow scholars, researchers and inter-ested public to view items in the collection by appointment.
• Due to physical and security needs of this special collection, in accordance with our AAM policies, storage of the part of the Murphy collection not on exhibition will not be in the basement nor in boxes. We are investigating purchasing a new system for storage in a highly secured area along with other military artifacts in our collection. Ideally this system will provide curators with easy access through a rolling hanging system.
• It is the normal course of Museum work to change exhibits, as only a small percentage of any museum’s collections can be on display at any given time due to space limitations and the many stories there are to tell. Currently, approximately 85% of our collections inventory is in storage.
• One of the most beloved installations in the first years of this particular gallery was on dis-play 1993-1996, the 50th anniversary exhibit “Army Town: Greensboro 1943 -1946”, the story of WWII in Greensboro. The Greensboro History Museum is looking forward to the next exhibit installation in this gallery in fall 2017, the story of World War I’s impact on our city.
Thank you for your interest in the Greensboro History Museum and this collection. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact Museum Director Carol Ghiorsi Hart carol.hart@ greensboro-nc.gov or 336-373-2306