|View single post by javal1|
|Posted: Sun Aug 31st, 2008 05:47 pm||
|Below is a review we posted regarding the Harrisburg Museum. Note this is an old review. We visited just after it opened, so I don't know how much it's changed:
It starts with freedom. It starts with slavery. It has superb technology and some stunning artifacts. It takes a lot of nerve to call an institution "THE National Civil War Museum" but to a very great extent, the dream of the mayor of Harrisburg, PA has come true.
Stephen Reed spent years working on this project, enduring everything from recalcitrant officialdom and limited local interest, to a common perception even from Civil War buffs that "nothing important (meaning no battle) ever HAPPENED in Harrisburg," meaning that this would be a silly place to put a major museum.
This latter perception the new museum gently tries to correct. Wartime Gov. Andrew Curtin was a vital force both politically in support of Abraham Lincoln's policies and logistically in supporting the war effort with manpower and supplies. Camp Curtin, the state's central troop induction and training center, was a powerhouse operation from inception of the war to the end. The museum is located very close to the site of Camp Curtin, and at least a little of its story may begin to reach a wider audience. But this museum is a national one, not the Pennsylvania Civil War Museum, and the detailed story of the Keystone State and the war will have to be told elsewhere.
The museum sits on a lovely hill overlooking the Susquehanna River, although in truth there is little in Harrisburg that does NOT overlook the Susquehanna River. The design is attractive, the entryway surrounding a colorized reproduction of the famous statue "Angel of Maryes Heights."
A brick footpath known as the "Walk of Valor" surrounds part of the curve. It has sections for every state and territory that took part in the Civil War, and bricks can be purchased to be set in the Walk in honor of a regiment, an ancestor, or yourself. It's a fundraising technique but very attractively done here.
Let us start at the beginning. The price of a ticket is extremely reasonable for a brand-new facility of this quality--$7 adult, seniors $6, students $5. There is no reason for any group to pay more than $20 to enter, which is the Family rate. Rules forbid bringing in cameras or video gear (alas) and cell phones (huzzah!) so leave them in the car.
The tour opens with a brief recap of American history that attempts to show, as much as one room's worth of material can, how the developments of Colonial, Revolutionary, and early 19th Century history resulted in differing trends in North and South. All states had slavery in their earliest days--in some it withered, in others it flourished. Books by the dozens and hundreds discuss the subject; the museum does as much as it can in one room.
The difference between this museum and the typical Civil War battlefield visitor's center is breathtaking. Three digital flat screen HDTV's hang on the wall, seamlessly integrated to tell (via actors representing "composite" characters) individual stories of how Americans felt about the rising tide of war sentiment that would soon sweep the nation. Benches are thoughtfully placed for those who wish to spend some time viewing the programs.
One after another they speak--a Northern lad whose brother is already in the army and who wants to join himself, opposed by his clergyman father--a Southern farmer who works in the fields alongside his few slaves, noting that they eat the same food, wear the same clothes, and live in similar housing to his own family--back and forth they go, one screen fading out as the other fades in. It's a terrific use of technology to enhance rather than intrude on the traditional functions of a museum.
Too soon one moves on to the second room, the one that is the source of most of the complaints that have appeared in print about the facility. It's the room devoted to the subject of slavery as it was just before the outbreak of war, and a brutal, shocking place it is. This is no "South-bashing" story; the complicity of Northern states, all of which had slavery at some point in their history, is carefully discussed. Perhaps what distresses some viewers most are the blunt words of the "slaveocracy" itself, those "fire-eaters" whose conviction that slavery was right and proper, and worth fighting for, is little studied today. They were downplayed after the war by those who beat the drum for the notion that it was all about "states rights" and tariffs. This room brings back the truth of the times with great force. Equally forceful are the rebuttals from the great abolitionists, black and white.
A display of a mother and child on the auction block has been cited by some as an example of "South-bashing" on the subject of slavery. In fact the setting is Washington DC, a fact that the museum might want to label more prominently. It must be realized that whether slavery was the cause of the Civil War can, and has been, validly debated for years. But there is an aspect of society that wishes to see all mention of it abolished. Those people will not get their wish here, nor should they.
But what really grabs your attention like a slap in the face is the jail cell. Figures in a dimly-lit brick room whose door is made of bars stare at you. They have chains on their hands and scars on their bodies and in-your-face hatred in their eyes as they stare at you. You find yourself staring at their bellies to see if they move, wondering if perhaps this is not just inspired sculpture but breathing actors hired to play these roles. In fact it is both--real people posed for the figures and castings were taken of their bodies and faces to create incredibly realistic mannequins. Art here is stronger than life would be--these figures are indeed, frozen in place and in a time which is no more, but for a moment is very here and now indeed.
The impact of this room is so strong that the next exhibit, centered around the opening of the war and the bombardment of Fort Sumter, is a definite shift in mood. More figures work a mortar, which periodically emits a flash of light and a boom of sound (muted from real life for the sake of glass cases, not to mention visitor eardrums.) First Manassas is covered here as well.
The next room may be the area that comes closest to the "typical" museum display in NPS visitor center style. Confederate on one side, Union on the other, the cases show artifacts and uniforms from artillery, cavalry, infantry and naval services. A central case on the Confederate side holds swords; on the Union side the focus is on special rifles used by snipers and sharpshooters.
Doors in this room lead to an overlook balcony which has plaques on the railing, but on the day of our visit the doors were locked. A break at this point would be a very good thing and not just for those looking for a nicotine fix. This museum packs an incredible amount of material into its space. The mind needs an occasional break to process what has already been seen to keep from being overwhelmed and shutting down from overload.
The war unrolls before us. How do you pack four years of chaos and carnage, courage and cruelty, into any one building? The diehard Civil War fan will appreciate the comprehensive nature of what Harrisburg is trying to do. Miracle of miracles, the Western Theater is covered as well as the East. A sleeve from George Pickett's uniform and a saber once presented to J. E. B. Stuart are there, but so is a diorama of Shiloh, and an artifact guaranteed to be new to all but the most devoted navy fan--a plaque bearing the name of Admiral David D. Farragut, which he moved from ship to ship and mounted on his cabin door.
Camp life is featured in a room of its own, built around a lifesize "typical camp" scene that takes up perhaps half the room. Firelight flickers as the sound system plays sung and instrumental music. The wall cases hold an impressive collection of cooking and eating utensils, the aforementioned musical instruments, often homemade; others have a brilliantly realistic juxtaposition of cards, dice and gambling chips with pocket Testaments and Bibles. It is well documented but seldom commented on that the cards, chips and dominoes were often found dumped along the march routes of soldiers heading into battle. Much as they may have enjoyed them in camp, few wanted to meet their Maker with such "devil's implements" still filling their pockets. Some who carried the Testaments did not have to worry about this; others cheerfully carried both.
(The only aspect of camp life that is missing in action is sex, either in physical or printed form. Dr. Thomas Lowry's classic "The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War" carefully documents the vast quantity of Victorian-era pornographic material available to and used by the men of this army, as they have been by all armies of all time. But this is a "family" institution after all and the omission is understandable.)
The room devoted to medicine is another knockout. The centerpiece is a complete Army of the Potomac hospital wagon, believed to be the only surviving specimen anywhere in the world. The mannequin scene this time (a guaranteed draw for any adolescent males in your group) is a surprisingly "typical" scene of an amputation without anesthetic, with the victim/patient literally biting a pain bullet. This is, while dramatic, not a fair reflection of the fact that painkillers were used by surgeons on the vast majority of occasions on both sides throughout the war. Chloroform, ether, and opiates were available and used, sometimes overused, on wounded men. The role of disease--typhoid, malaria, yellow and other fevers that killed twice as many men as battle wounds ever did--is mentioned but not stressed.
Just past the medical room is another scene using meticulously detailed mannequins guaranteed to make young and old alike stop and feel the war. In the center is a stunning depiction of the death of Alonzo Cushing at Gettysburg. The lifesize figures show Cushing at the side of his cannon just after he has been shot and fallen into the arms of his comrade. The graphics are as realistic, and the drama as intense, as those of the jailed slaves in the earlier room.
On the wall is another of those flatscreen TVs, this one showing excerpts from the Ted Turner movie "Gettysburg" interspersed with tape footage. The famous Pickett's Charge scene from the film, and the haunting music that went with it, provides a sort of 10 minute director's cut of what may be the most famous scene in Civil War filmdom.
The quality of artifacts in this museum is staggering. Those accustomed to Gettysburg-style rooms of seemingly identical muskets in racks on the walls may feel this place is under-stocked. But the quality more than makes up for it. Robert E. Lee's bible. U. S. Grant's tack (horse equipment) box. The bridle rosettes used by Gen. George Thomas. A plate from the china set the Lincolns used at the White House. A sash from Lincoln's funeral train, and a lantern from his house in Springfield, IL. Documents and signatures abound--those on display, wisely, are exquisite duplicates, with the originals stored safely away from light or mischance.
It may not be entirely fair to judge such a facility when it has been open to the public for less than a year. Flaws that stand out at this point may very well be cured before you read this. At the time of CWi's visit, Aug. 20, 2001, we had several complaints about mislabeled exhibits, poorly placed or inadequate lighting, and explanatory plaques placed so low on walls as to require uncomfortable twisting and bending to read. According to a conversation with Executive Director George Hicks on Aug. 28, these problems have been, or are in the midst of being, corrected.
Another problem that may be part of the work in progress is with a technically ingenious system to allow visitors to listen to Civil War period music on handsets. A menu gives choices of various categories of songs, bugle calls and the like. Unfortunately on the day we visited two of the six handsets were out of order.
Most of the problems we had with the museum visit did not relate to the museum at all, but to the fact that it is not easy to find or get to at the moment. Several readers have told us, and we agree, that signage in the streets of Harrisburg is confusing.
Every road leading to Harrisburg is adequately covered with billboards advertising the National Civil War Museum. They are very artistic, graphically striking, beautifully designed, and work well at enticing the traveling public to want to visit the site. They do not, however, do a good job of telling you how to get there once you ARE convinced to go.
The dining area, known as "The Monitor and Merrimac Cafe", was not open at the time of our visit, fairly early in the day. The gift shop is excellent, with a wide range of books and an unusually good collection of artwork from the Civil War and slightly postwar period. Meeting rooms and catering are also available.
So to get back to our original question - is the museum worth the trip? We say, regardless of where you are from, the answer should be a resounding "yes". Our visit took three hours, and we have no doubt that we left many of the interpretive signs unread. The experience left us in awe at the combination of high technology and sensory overload. This is, without a doubt, a place deserving to be called a NATIONAL museum. All of this, and Gettysburg less than a half-hour away! You can find their website at http://www.nationalcivilwarmuseum.org .