A Different Kind of Museum

This past March I visited London for a week.  Among the sites I wanted to visit (for a second time) was the Imperial War Museum.  I had already visited the Royal Army Museum twice, and I had taken my time exploring Churchill’s War Cabinet Rooms (although I’ll refresh that experience next time), but I really wanted to see the IWM, in part because of its immersive sections: a simulation of a portion of a WW I trench position and the civilian experience during the Blitz of 1940-41.

I’ve been to my share of Civil War museums, although there remain others on the list, including several fairly new ones in Virginia.  I’ve been in the three NPS museums for Gettysburg (the now-dilapidated cyclorama building, the now-departed Electric Map building, and the new museum), and I recall with fondness the old Dobbin House diorama (I confess to a real weakness for dioramas as well as cycloramas).  But I think that what I missed in these museums was the immersive nature of portions of the IWM.  As much as I like looking at artifacts, there’s something missing when it comes to understanding.  Interactive museums hold their place for me, too, and I’m curious as to what we could learn from those approaches.  For example, what would it be like to watch as a line of infantry approached you?  How could you simulate decision-making and its consequences?  Are there better ways to communicate certain points than the passive look at the item and read the descriptive text?

So, I ask: if you were given the opportunity to advance suggestions to design a national Civil War museum, what would you include?

11 thoughts on “A Different Kind of Museum

  1. Will Hickox August 8, 2011 / 5:58 pm

    Going with the immersive theme, there could be a three-dimensional display of a slave auction. Visitors could walk among life-sized figures or cutouts of potential customers while, on a platform, there would be cutouts of an auctioneer and slaves, with a hidden speaker playing auctioneer-speak. Another room could recreate plantation farming, with heat lamps overhead and figures of slaves working the ground, with a speaker playing spirituals and working sounds. In another room, a trench at Vicksburg, Atlanta or Petersburg. Too intense or reminiscent of Chuck-e-Cheese?

  2. Barky August 8, 2011 / 6:34 pm

    Can I answer “none”?

    We have a civil war museum. It’s called all the battlefields from Vicksburg to Gettysburg and everything in-between.

    I’d rather these sites be preserved in perpetuity than build another granite colossus that’ll be bankrupt in 10 years.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 9, 2011 / 10:17 am

      But this isn’t an “either/or” issue. And I’m waiting to hear that you’ve overlooked the transMississippi West. 🙂

  3. Ray O'Hara August 8, 2011 / 6:34 pm

    Interactive displays are always favorites among patrons, at the USN’s Submarine Museum
    in Groton Ct {free admission} one very popular display is its periscope room, they have several periscopes one can look through. they are set to view the Thames River {said with TH as in the, not English way} tracking a real ship with one is kind of cool. they also have the USS Nautilus open to tour.

    Not far away from that is the Foxwoods Casino Indian museum. this consists of over a dozenl large life sized dioramas {best I’ve ever seen} that show all aspects of the pre-contact way of life.the one depicting a hunt is spectacular.
    You are given a handset which can play the narrative for each display using a low powered radio. this would work well for a CW museum, life sized dioramas of camp and trench life would be easily done if expensive the Pequot spent $190,000,000 building the place, {if you go skip the casino, gambling is a disease}
    Maybe a loadable cannon or muskets would be fun.also A section of earthworks and bombproofs such as surrounded Richmond-Petersburg would be a nice walk through exhibit.

    I actually like artifacts, seeing Turner Ashby’s “non-descript” mountain howitzer in the small out of the way Warren Rifles Museum in Front Royal was very cool.
    .I love coming across an obscure piece like that {I’m still devastated by the theft of the Eagle belonging to the 1st Regt of the Old Guard from the Gardner Museum in the great art heist there}

    the “electric” maps that many CW museums have always struck me as a waste, they never seemed to be painted and when the lights were shut off and the lights shined on them depicting troop movements the relief maps was lost in the darkness and the arrows might as well have been shown on the floor. Compared to the old Chattanooga Confederama diorama they are a bust.

  4. Will Hickox August 8, 2011 / 6:43 pm

    Since many museums are incorporating “touch” displays, there could be a cotton bale for visitors to feel and roll along the floor, and a soldier’s jacket to try on.

    Going back to immersion, I just imagined a life-sized brick barbette and cannon recreating part of the wall of Sumter, with a large wall painting of the Charleston skyline in front and recorded waves, seagulls, and drums. Now that could be cool!

  5. Will Hickox August 8, 2011 / 7:14 pm

    How about a Senate Chamber display with foam canes with which visitors can beat each other? Ok, that one’s tongue-in-cheek.

  6. Ken Noe August 9, 2011 / 5:46 am

    You might well expand your query to battlefields. At Culloden visitors must go through the museum and a post-battle surgery scene with live actors before accessing the field.

  7. Lyle Smith August 9, 2011 / 10:15 am

    Professor, if you’re a fan of cycloramas and dioramas, next time you’re in Switzerland (if ever), make a point to visit Luzern to see the Bourbaki panorama. It’s a painting of a French army seeking refuge in Switzerland during the Franco-Prussian war. Instead of surrendering to the Prussian/German forces, they gave up their arms to the Swiss.

    Lovely painting. Luzern is a wonderful place as well.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 9, 2011 / 10:31 am

      In Paris I visited the Musee de l’Armee, where I discovered that Paul Philippoteaux, who painted the Gettysburg Cyclorama, also did one (with his father) for the Franco-Prussian War, fragments of which were on display. Speaking of the former location of the Gettysburg Cyclorama, one should see where the one at Waterloo is located.

      • Ray O'Hara August 9, 2011 / 10:47 am

        Can you imagine the outcry here is something like the “Lion Mound’ was proposed?

  8. Lyle Smith August 9, 2011 / 10:22 am

    As far as a national Civil War museum… there should at least be a national slavery museum or myriad slavery museums dotted around the South, and up and down the Atlantic coast first.

    I’ve always been a supporter of a serious museum on slavery.

    Historical plantations are getting better at it, but they usually don’t have enough money (meaning they don’t get enough visitors at a decent price) to really get into it (which is really the case with pretty much most historical sites).

    As someone said above, Federal money might be better spent on preserving the Civil War across the breadth of the country. With limited funds, a super museum, would possibly take away from all the other places. So I’d only support a colossal civil war museum if it could be self sufficient. Otherwise, it should just be someone’s pipe dream.

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