The eagerly anticipated American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar is scheduled to open to the public May 4 with a grand opening party complete with food trucks and a beer garden.
But first, we got an exclusive sneak peek at the $25 million, 29,000-square-foot museum that aims to explore the Civil War and its impact in a brand-new way.
“The mission had to be front and center,” said Christy Coleman, the museum’s CEO. “For me, it meant it couldn’t look like everybody’s museum and it couldn’t look like everybody else’s exhibit.”
The new museum is a merger of two museums: the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. They announced the merger in 2013 to tell the full story of the Civil War, from the North to the South, free African Americans and enslaved, women, children and immigrants.
And now, six years later, it’s finally ready to open.
A fragmented nation
The exhibit has an explosive opening.
One of the first items on exhibit is the Henry House, a re-creation of a home that was blown to bits in the first Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War. The house is exploded into shards hung from the ceiling with video projections of battlefields running across them.
“People took their picnic baskets to this battle. They thought it would be over in one fell swoop. The Henry House is meant to represent that frozen moment in time when everything changed for the country. The people saw the horrific causalities and realized what was about to unfold,” said Cynthia Torp, president of the exhibit design company Solid Light.
That theme of a fragmented America — a theme that speaks to today, too — runs through the entire exhibit with shards and sharp angles.
“We have this tendency to think of inevitability in terms of this war. We have ideas there was a turning point, but there really wasn’t,” Coleman said.
“For the people who lived it, the Civil War was dealing with uncertainty at every turn. We wanted to capture some of that,” Coleman said. “One of the themes in the exhibit, from the beginning of the war to the end, is about personal choice. Why are people making the choices they do?”
The focus is to tell stories in a different way with a human element. Stories of women and children, enslaved and free African Americans, immigrants, and of course, those who fought in the war.
There are new stories in the exhibit that haven’t been told or aren’t as well-known, such as that of Robert Smalls, a slave who stole a Confederate steamboat at the outbreak of the Civil War and piloted it to freedom, along with his enslaved crew, his wife, daughter and infant son. Later, he became a U.S. politician.
There’s a stylized abstraction on the Vicksburg Caves where civilians had to hide from the bombing and the battle at Vicksburg.
There’s an exhibit on enlisted black troops; after the Emancipation Proclamation, 180,000 African Americans served in the Army.
And there’s a section on how to build a war machine with the whole country behind it.
“It’s nation-building and the mindset that had to be built along with it,” Coleman said. “With this exhibit comes death and destruction. We hadn’t seen that level of carnage in our nation ever before. Not at this level.”
But there are also familiar stories like a section on J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederate general, with his big boots, his sword, his hat and gloves, his writing desk and gun.
Visitors will also learn the story of Richmond burning.
And there’s the famous painting of the last meeting between Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, which hangs across from a colorized photograph of the black members of the postwar General Assembly.
Nothing is new to the collection, but items are presented in a new way.
“Our brilliant young curator Cathy Wright put this together. This is the crowning piece for her,” Coleman said.
The museum also took the bold move to digitally colorize many of the photos in the exhibit.
“People respond more to color,” Coleman said. She and her staff conducted research and held several focus groups on responses to black-and-white and colorized photos.
The result is more lifelike.
The color palette itself — gold, black and navy — is striking and modern.
“Christy wanted to do something really new and fresh that would connect with today’s visitors,” said Torp, the Solid Light president. The innovative color palette allows “all the images to pop, particularly the colorized ones,” she added.
Instead of telling a straight chronological story, the museum chose to follow emotional mapping.
“We wanted to look at it like how you tell a great novel plays out,” Torp said. “There are emotional peaks and valleys in the storytelling. Because this is such a grave, grim story, we wanted there to be some relief from these emotional, highly charged moments. We mapped it emotionally like a heat map.”
The galleries are laid out chronologically by year, but the stories are told in a more thematic way.
“This exhibit has to tell a story of chaos and confusion. It has to be emotionally engaging as well as intellectually stimulating for the casual visitor as well as the Civil War buff,” Coleman said. “Which can be very difficult to do.”
Out of the ruins of the Confederacy
The new building, built directly into the hill at Tredegar, is a marvel.
The front of the museum is a glass curtain, enclosing the ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works.
To enter the museum, visitors pass through one arch of the ruins. Once inside the lobby, visitors pass through more ruins to get into the paid part of the museum.
“It’s like a big exhibit case over the ruins, saving and protecting this story,” Coleman said. The Tredegar Iron Works date to the 1800s. The foundry produced munitions for the Civil War.
The design for the completed building wasn’t the first. The original plan placed it closer to the street, but that had to be scrapped a few years into the planning because it was directly in the floodplain.
“That was soul-crushing. At the time, it was excruciating,” Coleman said.
While they were waiting, she said they lost a lot of momentum and steel prices were rising, driving up the building costs.
The completed design was a third smaller than the original design and a third more expensive.
“But it was absolutely the right decision,” Coleman said. “We started over. We ended up with a better design and one that works really beautifully with the site as a whole.”
The building was designed by 3north, a local architecture firm that has designed museums before, but this is by far its most visible and noteworthy.
To get the museum out of the floodplain, the architects sloped the entrance to the museum up 4 feet. Now, when visitors pass under the ruin arches into the museum, the base of the arches is 4½ feet under one’s feet.
“It was a challenge to build new buildings around ruins. They’re delicate,” said Damon Pearson, director of 3north. “The intent was to preserve them. We had to be very careful during construction to make sure we weren’t damaging them.”
Movement, vibration and crack monitoring systems were used to make sure the ruins were sound during building.
Forty percent of the building is underground, built into the hill at Tredegar, including the 6,000-square-foot main gallery.
The temporary galleries are above ground. The first temporary exhibit is called “Greenback America” and explores money in the Civil War.
A balcony on the second floor offers a stunning view of the James River.
At night, the arch in the lobby gets lit up and becomes a focal point across the courtyard.
“I think the museum will get a lot of use out of the space for the events,” Pearson said. Already the site has been used for an opera and a festival. It’s expected to be a popular spot for weddings.
The theme of fragmentation is picked up in the design of the building.
“The exhibits themselves are meant to be fragmented. We tried to reinforce that with the architecture. You’re meant to see this event from as many different viewpoints as possible. And you’re seeing all of them simultaneously,” Pearson said.
The museum opens to the media Friday and will be covered by The Washington Post as well as The New York Times and USA Today.
While the idea of the museum encountered some controversy, it was nothing like the ongoing controversy over what to do with the Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue.
“Any time organizations think radically about how best to seize opportunity there will be controversy,” Coleman said. “Fortunately, we had significant support.”
Coleman was selected as one of Time magazine’s “31 People Changing the South” last year.
“Relevance is part of our mission,” she said. “We have to matter. We have to help people understand the Civil War matters.”
“History has never been for the dead,” Coleman added. “We look to it for its lessons, and we’ll never get those lessons if we’re not honest about the complexities of the past and all the players.”