An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia is making its Valley debut at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester. The exhibition is one half of a two-part project that was organized by the Virginia Historical Society and the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission in Richmond, Va. The current exhibition runs through June 10, 2012. The other half, Waging War, is scheduled to run from Aug. 3 through Dec. 2, 2012.
Winchester is the first statewide stop for the traveling show at seven Virginia museums. The tour is the culmination of years of planning. Andrew H. Talkov, an exhibition coordinator with the Virginia Historical Society, who was at a special exhibition preview on Feb. 9, said that the other half of the American Turning Point exhibition will soon go on display in Hampton, Va.
The Shenandoah Valley is well-represented in the exhibition. A large painting of “Jackson Entering the City of Winchester, Virginia,” by William D. Washington, may be one of the most visible examples, but Winchester and the Valley are also interpreted elsewhere, such as within the interactive multimedia displays that compliment the collection of historic artifacts, photos, documents and artworks. A lot of information and sensory experience is packed into the 1,300 square foot Changing Exhibition Gallery space.
The gallery layout works well for casual browsing, while the interactive features provide opportunities for serious history-lovers to dig deeper into the human experience of what it was like to be living in war-torn, 1860s Virginia. One example is the “What Would You Do” feature, a sort of “interactive graphic novel” that is presented in comic strip form on a touch-screen panel display. It's designed as a presentation specifically for children about children, but one that can work effectively in a relatively quiet museum environment.
Journey to Freedom consists of large panel displays where gallery visitors can become immersed in the “real-time” life of a slave who is escaping toward Union lines, either as male or female and one with a given set of personal characteristics. Decisions must then be made along a route to what hopefully will lead to freedom.
“What we did, is we tried to tell the stories of everyday people whose experiences ranged from soldiers to civilians, white and black, free and enslaved,” Talkov says. “You know, men, women, children. And we tried to pick individuals who could sort of stand in for a typical experience that was experienced by far more people throughout Virginia. And Virginia is a microcosm of the War in total, we think.”
Visitors will also see references to famous individuals, including abolitionist John Brown and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but the emphasis is always on less-known, ordinary people. Their stories come back to life for contemporary Virginians 150 years later, as well as among visitors from outside the Commonwealth who visit Winchester for what should prove to be a big Sesquicentennial history year.
“We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 75,000 people who saw this show while it was in Richmond. And one of the goals of doing a traveling exhibit was to be able to put it in front of as many Virginians as we could,” Talkov says.
An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia–Surviving War also includes a number of special activities that are scheduled at the museum during 2012. Lectures, historical tours at local battlefield sites, living history demonstrations, walking tours and a play are all part of planned activities.
The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley is located at 901 Amherst St. and includes the Museum, the Glen Burnie Historic House, and six acres of gardens. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.ShenandoahMuseum.org.
Jackson Entering the City of Winchester, Virginia, by William D. Washington, ca. 1864, Valentine Richmond History Center. Photo: Meg Eastman, Virginia Historical Society. Story copyright 2012 by Shenandoah Valley Productions LLC.