Innovative Exhibits at the VHS

An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia is the newest exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society. The exhibit focuses on the wartime experiences of everyday Virginians – women, immigrants, slaves, and even Unionists – immersing you in the feeling of what it was like to live on the home-front, in Virginia.

An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia is the newest exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS), a free history museum on the Boulevard. The exhibit was created by the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission (HB 1140) which was enacted in 2006, to plan and develop programs to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Virginia’s role in the Civil War. In partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities, a total of nearly $4 million was set aside for the design, fabrication, travel, and upkeep of the exhibit. There is also funding from the Commission for other smaller exhibits, films, lectures, and events around the state through the end of the sesquicentennial in 2015.

“This is an enormously important event in terms of American History. It’s an even more important event in terms of African American History,” says VHS’s lead curator, Dr. William Rasmussen. “All that was done in the past, pretty much, was to look at what happened to white, confederate males. Of course their lives were overturned, but everybody’s life was overturned. And so we thought this was a wonderful opportunity to tell the stories that haven’t been told.” The exhibit focuses on the wartime experiences of everyday Virginians – women, immigrants, slaves, and even Unionists – immersing you in the feeling of what it was like to live on the home-front, in Virginia. Topics like period medicine, weaponry, flag-making, guerilla warfare in not-yet-seceded West Virginia, and more are also discussed through the use of compelling audiovisual units, artwork, and artifacts.

The audio visuals are the most integrative aspect of the exhibit. With the “Journey to Freedom” program, you can take on the persona of a slave and make a digital attempt at escaping to Union lines, picking up useful tools and deciding whether to converse with people you meet along the way, trying to avoid capture as you sneak across fields, forests, rivers and plantations. “I think people of all ages are getting into this…There are all these variables in this thing. No one has been through all the possibilities,” Dr. Rasmussen comments.

You can also take on the role of a physician on the front-line, where the program presents you with soldiers complaining of certain symptoms and, using the touch screen, you must diagnose your patients and figure out how best to treat them. This particular audio-visual even includes a mock pharmaceutical commercial, advertising the kinds of drugs used during the war, explaining their limited effectiveness and sometimes fatal side effects. Aspects such as this are designed to make the exhibit as modern and accessible as possible.

Other audio visuals allow you to explore the battles that took place in Virginia, what parts of the country the soldiers came from, the casualties, and the amount of artillery used. You can also explore a collection of watercolor battle maps by mapmakers Jedediah Hotchkiss and Robert Knox Sneden. The maps are actually the size of a postcard, but 150 of the 500 maps in the collection have been scanned and put into a computer so guests can zoom in and try to spot the differences between paintings of the same location at different points in the battle.

The works of art in the show include 19th century depictions of the Confederate Navy, as well as real-life scenes of slave families fleeing on horseback to plead for freedom at a nearby Union encampment. You can get up close and personal with the over 200 artifacts in the exhibit, including flags, muskets, swords, Confederate playing cards, locks of hair from deceased soldiers, and Confederate money.

Last, but not least, is a 36-foot long, life-size, 3-D, wrap-around representation of a battle. As you walk in, you can hear the sounds of the brawl: yells, gunshots, drums. You can see the blood smatterings, the corpses sprawled at your feet, the fury in the eyes of the Union soldier about to the jab you in the face with the butt of his rifle. The sounds and images were taken at a re-enactment of the 1864 Battle of Kernstown, near Winchester, Virginia. “These re-enactors are that accurate, down to the thread-count of their clothing,” says Jennifer Guild, Senior Marketing Director at the VHS.

“I did not have the ability to envision something like this,” Rasmussen says, gesturing around at the expansive exhibit. “And there are a lot of things in here I don’t think anyone has done before.” The comment book at the exhibit is filled with words like, “Fantastic,” “Wonderful,” “Enjoyable,” and “Informative.” The comments in children’s handwriting praise the touch screen games and the amputation center, where you can watch an unfortunate soldier having his arm amputated. “We have geared this exhibit so you can come and learn about the people who lived in Virginia during the Civil War and you don’t feel like you’re being forced Civil War History down your throat,” Guild stresses, urging that even people who don’t want to learn about the Civil War will find something to take away from the exhibit.

The exhibit will travel around to seven other venues in the state, but it will remain at the Virginia Historical Society through December 30th. The VHS is open seven days a week, 10am –5pm, Monday through Saturday, and 1pm – 5pm on Sundays.


We originally reported $20M over the next ten years had been set aside for the upkeep of the exhibit. The correct numbers are: $4M over the next four years. — Ed.

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Pat Kardian

Pat is in her last semester at VCU, getting ready to graduate with a double major in English and History. In the past, she interned with Capital City Books (the most awesome publishing company in the world), proofreading, editing, and writing for the company’s blog. Now she’s excited to be interning with RVANews, trying to come up with news-worthy ideas. She loves to write. Anything and everything. She also adores pets, snow, and being outside. And don’t bother challenging her at 500 Rummy because you’re going down.

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