What makes this exhibit so different?
For one, it’s not organized chronologically. Many of the exhibits we looked at start with Fort Sumter, then go to Manassas, then Shiloh, all the way along. But we’ve organized ours around certain theme areas: “Raising Armies,” “Breaking Apart” (which deals with both secession and slavery), “Prisoners and Casualties” and so forth—all thematic areas that may or may not be organized chronologically. It’s also unique in that it focuses a lot on the primary sources we have at the Archives, and it includes a large number of interactives, both computer interactives and physical, mechanical interactives that let people explore the records in a lot more depth.
What are your goals for the exhibit?
We hope visitors will understand that new Civil War stories are always being discovered, and that they’ll learn that new questions lead to additional stories and different kinds of answers, which is all part of the historic process. We want them to understand that they can come to the National Archives and use the records we have here and decide for themselves when they have questions about the Civil War. And like any of our other exhibits, we hope that visitors will be amazed to discover the number of resources that we have available.
How long have you been working on it? Any surprises?
I can’t believe it, but I’ve been working on the exhibit since December 2005. One of the first things I did—because I’m not a Civil War historian— was try to catch up on the last 35 years of scholarship, and that led me to realize that there was so much more out there than what I’d recalled.
I’ve been surprised by many of the documents I’ve come across and the stories that are out there. I’m surprised that you can actually look at a so-called common soldier’s career through our pension files or military service records, which provide so much detail. We have an incredible number of records in our files that I don’t think many historians were using 30 years ago.
Can visitors talk to an archivist while at the exhibit?
We don’t want to just take people back to the 1860s; we want to bring the war into the 21st century with the exhibit’s interactive features. In the prologue, we show two archivists talking about what they have found in the stacks and go from there. One interactive tells the story of the CSS Alabama and the USS Kearsarge. As the visitor looks at the documents, he creates a graphic novel about the Alabama’s voyage and the battle. We also hope to have a virtual docent program using social media, where we can put volunteers online to talk about their research or about the exciting things they have found. Hopefully the tie-ins to today will bring people in, especially young people.
Why is it a two-part exhibit?
We have approximately a 3,000-square-foot exhibit gallery upstairs, The Lawrence O’Brien Gallery. We wanted to do an exhibit that would take up approximately 6,000 feet, so we have a Part A that covers 3,000 square feet and a Part B that will be 3,000 square feet. When the exhibit travels around the country, however, those two parts are going to be combined.
I suspect I will be on the road a little bit as it goes to the different venues, either for press previews or in working with the education people in the various museums.