Exhibit review: 'Discovering the Civil War' at the National Archives

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

With Friday's opening of "Discovering the Civil War," the National Archives launches what will be a long and potentially transformative era of Civil War commemorations. As the nation prepares for a string of 150th anniversaries -- of every important battle, every political event, every proclamation -- the country will again rehash the meaning of its most pivotal internal event. With an African American president, and a Southern political culture still in thrall to the myth of Confederate legitimacy, is there hope for any progress this time round?

The Archives' new show is the first of a two-part exhibition that will eventually travel the country. But its ambition seems to be less about making grand statements and more about exploring new possibilities for presenting archival material to the public. With touch screens and video, listening stations and books and documents in old-style glass display cases, it uses techniques from at least a century of museum design.

The new show demonstrates how much the Archives wants to make its reason for being clear to the public, how intent it is to entice visitors with the romance of looking into documents, discovering the forgotten texture of history and enhancing, tweaking and rethinking the written record. With a nonprofit foundation to help it raise funds, and a worrisome embrace of the your-name-here culture of courting rich and corporate donors, the Archives has gone glitzy.

Actors playing attractive young archivists in blue work coats appear on a large video screen at the opening of the exhibition, holding up documents that hint at some of the discoveries about to be revealed to the visitor. Behind them are rows of files and boxes, a video view into the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes world of stored information. Perhaps this rather hokey introductory gesture will appeal to younger visitors, but the excitement of the fresh-faced history barkers is a bit of false advertising for a profession that involves months of drudgery, repetition and frustration for every lucky strike of research.

The show proceeds thematically rather than chronologically. It raises large questions -- What led to the secession of the South? Were there efforts to avoid war? -- and then offers documents that should help visitors form answers. Early in the exhibition, viewers confront what might be called the Southern-apologist listening station, where you can both read, and listen to, a document laying out South Carolina's reasons for secession. After some boilerplate language about the Constitution comes reason No. 1: The right to property, which for South Carolina included the right to human chattel, had been infringed.

There it is, in black and white, and coming at you through a very 1980s hand-held listening device: Slavery is the cause -- the essential, primary, undeniable first and sufficient cause for the war. While much of the exhibition aims at nuance and complexity, this should be sufficient to unmask the old masquerade about what the South was fighting for. Efforts to make it seem problematic and complex are all too often part of a nostalgia game, nostalgia for a time when every white Southern man had a God-given right to be a racist, if he so chose.

The exhibition puts this material in a corner, literally and figuratively. It isn't hidden, but it isn't highlighted, a reflection, perhaps, of what Ken Lore, president of the Foundation for the National Archives, explained to journalists before the exhibition opening: No one will be forced to believe anything in particular about the war.

In some ways that's an admirable goal. Certainly the show opens up surprising side channels in Civil War history. In a room devoted to diplomacy, we learn that in April 1864, Catholic Bishop Patrick Lynch got around the Union naval blockade en route to the Vatican, where he hoped to secure recognition of the Confederacy from Pope Pius IX. It's encouraging to learn that he failed in his endeavor, and depressing that he undertook the mission in the first place.

We also learn about rebel raids on Vermont, from Canada, and the sad journey of Creek Indians loyal to the Union, who had to fight their way through Confederate territory to a grim new existence in Kansas. There's touching human detail, including a letter from a Confederate woman to her husband after the war, imploring him to take a loyalty oath and return home to his family, and a draft notice sent to a Union soldier who was already dead.

Much of this material is presented in facsimile, on large boards attached to the walls of the somewhat claustrophobic, 3,000-square-foot exhibition space. Other documents are actually on display, and many of them can be seen on high-definition touch screens. Unfortunately, the screens weren't working perfectly during a media preview. When you tried to zoom in on a telegram announcing the Confederate raid on Vermont, you got a close-up view of an entirely different document showing "B.B. Hotchkiss' Improvements in Explosive Projectiles, Patented 1862."

More problematic is the touch-screen readability. Civil War-era handwriting is hard to read even on paper under ideal light conditions. The back-lit touch screens allow the visitor to zoom in on documents and move them around on the screen. But for anyone who has played around with an iPad, the technology will be a disappointment. And if your eyes aren't very good, reading extensively from the screens will be fatiguing.

These are the inevitable travails of trying to get people as engaged with documents as Ken Burns once did, even though the pages can't possibly be put into the hands of ordinary visitors. One wonders if, for the price of all the video and digital technology, cheaply printed facsimiles of the telegrams, letters and petitions could be given to visitors, allowing them to hold and read something like the original. But there are no easy solutions to a perennial problem: Old documents are not visually sexy like old art, and the visitor will need to be spoon-fed the insights that only scholars can glean from them.

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