To Mark 150 Years, History Will Go on Tour

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The National Archives will join states, counties, cities and towns to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War with a major new traveling exhibit titled "Discovering the Civil War" that will include original war-related documents.

The Archives is the repository for all official government documents and a treasure chest of unseen Civil War documents.

The announcement was made last month to several local Civil War roundtables, whose members were shown some of the documents that will be exhibited first in Washington, beginning in late 2009. The Archives is framing the exhibit by including events leading up to the war -- John Brown's attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry -- and for several years after it ended.

However, the intention is not to tell the comprehensive and definitive history of the war but to share with the public a Civil War that is still being explored. Nor will the exhibit attempt to answer the controversies that swirl around the war but rather it will seek to help visitors understand that historians and others hold multiple points of view about the war, according to the Archives.

Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Center for the National Archives Experience, said the 6,000-square-foot exhibit will include Virginia's Secession Act -- the document sent to Washington to notify the government of the state's break with the union -- and a letter sent to the emperor of China, thanking him for barring Confederate ships from his ports.

Also included in the exhibit will be two 13th Amendments; the earlier one is sometimes called the "missing amendment." On March 2, 1861, Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would forbid any attempt to subsequently amend the Constitution to empower the federal government to abolish the institution of slavery. It was never ratified. The second 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, was passed by Congress on Jan. 31, 1865 -- before the war had ended -- and was ratified Dec. 6, 1865.

"We are looking for a geographic distribution of the exhibit in major cities with a large potential audience," Pinkert said. "The fee will be $250,000, but there is much more needed than the money. We have to be assured the institution can handle original documents with the right light and humidity control and security arrangements."

He said museums cannot charge for the exhibit but are expected to cover additional costs through audio tour rentals and an increase in the number of general admission sales.

"We have had discussions about how to reach the smaller museums and make them a part of the exhibit," he said. "We'd love to be able to loan a part of the exhibit on specific topics such as emancipation or reconstruction to, say, a civil rights museum. The entire exhibit is a collection of parts, and each part has value."

Part of the show's planning includes conservation considerations for the original documents. None could stand constant exposure through the eight years that the show possibly will be traveling, Pinkert said.

"There will be two or three changes of documents during the tour," he said. "There are restrictions for conservation reasons. One year of light time -- and by that I mean very low light -- means that document will have to be stored for nine years and not brought out at all."

Pinkert said the exhibit organizers' goal is to have a show that will appeal to all Americans.

"We want to create an intriguing show, one that will offer something for those visitors who had family fighting for the North or the South, or for neither side, and for those with families who arrived after the war," he said.

Linda Wheeler may be reached at 540-465-8934

© 2007 The Washington Post Company