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American Civil War Museum Broadens Understanding of Conflict with New Technology and Perspectives

American Civil War Museum
The new $25 million building (on the right) housing the American Civil War Museum integrates the ruins of Tredegar Iron Works into its design. It's built to evoke a vitrine, or large glass museum display case. The design was created by architects at 3North. Penelope M. Carrington/The American Civil War Museum

The new  American Civil War Museum officially opens its doors on May 4. The building transforms some of the industrial ruins of Tredegar Iron Works into a space where curators use technology and design to experience history in new ways. WCVE’s Peter Solomon has this report for Virginia Currents. 


The building is a big glass box that’s built into the hillside. You enter through a freestanding arch and walk into a permanent exhibit that’s anything but a typical museum experience.

Cathy Wright:  So the facade of the house behind me is modeled on the home of a, of a woman named Judith Henry who lived in Northern Virginia. 

We’re standing in front of a reconstructed facade of Henry’s home and curator Cathy Wright is leading the tour. It’s the central exhibit at the American Civil War Museum. 

WrightAnd her home was literally in the middle of the battlefield of First Manassas in July of 1861.

Judith Henry was one of the first civilian casualties of the war. A barrage of artillery fire left her dead and destroyed her home.

Workers at the American Civil War Museum install the replicated Henry House. You can see an image from a museum film projected onto a piece of the exploded house suspended near the ceiling of the gallery. (Photo: Penelope M. Carrington/The American Civil War Museum)

WrightSo as we walk around toward the back of the house, you'll see the way that we've chosen to, to sort of have the house caught with, with various fragments, sort of suspended in mid air as though it is literally in the midst of being demolished and exploded.

An original film is projected onto pieces of the demolished house suspended near the ceiling of the gallery.

WrightIt takes quotations from, from real men and women and shows what it was like for them to be in their first battle and to serve as, as a nurse caring for those who had been wounded or killed in that battle. 

After looking up to see the film, you look down to see the next display. Embedded in the floor  is a glass case with items found at the scenes of battles. Wright says these unusual ways of displaying artifacts are about trying to get visitors to look at things more closely.

WrightI want to stop people in their tracks and, and encourage them to look more closely and want to learn more deeply.

The museum uses other techniques the curators hope will hold your attention. For CEO Christy Coleman, one of the most effective  components of the exhibit is the use of large colorized historical photographs.

Christy ColemanI love the idea that we have, you know, the deep hues of someone's eyes or you know, the, the texturing of their skin or, you know, I, I love that immediacy that, um, is throughout the way the show looks. I do love that. 

A view of the permanent exhibit "The People's Struggle." Curators use colorized historical photographs to bring new light to the stories of people impacted by the war. (Photo: Penelope M. Carrington/The American Civil War Museum)

On the tour, Cathy Wright demonstrated how  visitors could use interactive touch screens to decide how deeply they wanted to delve into a topic. There’s one interactive screen for each year of the war that documents the number of casualties. Visitors can also use an interactive timeline and map to go as far into a specific topic as their curiosity takes them.

ColemanIt enabled us to add information cleanly, succinctly, easily accessible so that a visitor, no matter how deep they want to go, they can.

Stephanie Arduini is the director of education. She says visitors will be exposed to a fuller story about the Civil War, including the experiences of women, free and enslaved African Americans, Asians, Latinos and Native peoples.

Stephanie Arduini And so having them as players, as actors that were making impact, with real choices and impact. They were there in the history. We knew they were there in the history, but they haven't always been included in the way that we publicly talk about the war. 

The American Civil War Museum will open its doors on May 4. Museum leaders say they are excited to see how visitors respond to the use of new exhibit techniques and the inclusion of stories that haven’t been previously represented.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Peter Solomon, WCVE News. 

Another view of the American Civil War Museum. The statue depicts Abraham Lincoln and his son Tadd. Lincoln visited Richmond in 1865 with his son but never came to Tredegar. (Photo: Peter Solomon/WCVE)


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