“A deepened pride in our nation’s history “: Crafting Exhibits in a Modern Park

From Beth Parnicza:

This post continues the story of park infrastructure expansion during the Mission 66 period, introduced here.

Two movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s captured Americans on a global and local level: the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. As tensions mounted at home and abroad, the National Park Service prepared to turn 50 years old. As part of the NPS anniversary “Mission 66” initiative, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP seized the opportunity to craft new exhibits in the old museum space at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building (now known as the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center), and at the new Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center.

The challenge was high. The park’s small staff of historians faced the greatest expansion of interpretation since the park’s creation. Staff had to balance their understanding of the past with the conflicts and societal understandings of the present. Our past defines us and provides us with an identity, but we can only understand the past through our own experiences. In this sense, the past becomes another layer of the present that manifests in history books, exhibits, and storytelling. To help visitors connect with the war, the new exhibits needed to fit a modern generation’s understanding of the Civil War as the conflict neared its centennial anniversary.

1937 view of Fredericksburg Battlefield museum and administrative building exhibits. Two chairs, a diorama of destruction downtown, four exhibit cases, and a large map.

The exhibit space in the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building in 1937, shortly after it opened. This room looked much the same 20 years later, as the park prepared for new exhibits to occupy this space.

Looking around the existing gallery space, the park’s historian staff must have been both dazzled by the possibilities and alarmed at the open-ended questions they confronted. How broad in scope should the new exhibits be? How do we fit such a vast and compelling story into a compact space? How do we teach visitors with an increasingly distant view of the war? Which stories of the Civil War should we tell?

Park Historian Albert Dillahunty

Park Historian Albert Dillahunty drafted the park’s museum prospectus and led exhibit planning efforts.

The historian staff, led by Albert Dillahunty, decisively answered these questions with a museum prospectus in 1959. While the battlefields undoubtedly welcomed well-informed visitors and specialists, Dillahunty focused on visitors who had “little knowledge of tactical warfare and military maneuvers” who could “be stimulated through the introduction of background material and applicable human interest highlights.” If successful, the exhibits would “entertain the specialist, inform the layman, and excite the curiosity of those who are finding a new interest in the Civil War.”

Many visitors were, in fact, finding a new interest in the Civil War. With the ending of the Korean War and the increasing tensions of the Cold War, park officials in Fredericksburg noticed a trend that today sounds like common sense: “War and threat of war has, we believe, aroused a keen interest in military history.” With a nation preparing for war, Americans looked to the past for answers—and hope.

“Laid against the background of one of America’s most historic cities, the battle of Fredericksburg , in many of its essentials, is as modern as today’s newspaper account of Korean fighting—the pontoon bridging of rivers under fire, beachhead landings, street fighting, heavy and sustained artillery bombardment, the storming of strongly fortified heights, field telegraphic communication and aerial observation.”

In the Civil War, Americans found a war they could relate to, a critical attribute as they faced the threat of nuclear warfare. There was something familiar about the nontraditional aspects of Civil War battlefield combat in the Battle of Fredericksburg. By understanding the past war through the lens of a present conflict, visitors gained a frame of reference.

Many of the new exhibits also depicted a nation refined by war, suggesting that the Civil War truly made us better, despite its inherent strife. To convey this understanding of the war (a popular opinion then and now), the exhibits focused on commonalities and nationalistic ideas. Although this did not produce remarkably analytical exhibits, it marked a dramatic departure from past collections of relics by weaving a general story throughout the exhibit space.

Another innovation from earlier exhibit practices was the extensive social history presence in the proposed exhibits. The 1960s saw a great expansion in Civil War social history literature, and in keeping with the times, park historians crafted an entire room to address camp life, women in the war, and relief agencies like the U.S. Christian Commission at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.

"Friendly Enemies" exhibit panel

“Friendly Enemies” describes the fraternization common between pickets of the opposing sides when a campaign was not underway. Soldiers traded goods and conversation across the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, even using small sailboats at times.

Many of these camp life and relief exhibit cases focused on the shared experiences between the warring sides, as one case’s title strongly suggests: “Friendly Enemies.” In an era of rising international tensions, Americans looked to a shared past in which the warring sides had more in common than divided them.

To understand the similarities and differences between Union and Confederate soldiers, the park’s historians planned a case to feature each and display typical uniform pieces. Take a close look at these two cases, which originally stood side by side in the upstairs exhibit room at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center and were later moved downstairs when the “gun room” was dismantled in the 1980s.

"The Union Soldier" exhibit case, with rifle, Zouave jacket, haversack, kepi, and overcoat.

“The Union Soldier” case as it looked just before being dismantled this past February. Note the soldier’s accouterments, which the quotations imply weighed the soldier down, and notice that the soldier has no named leader in Ambrose Burnside.

On the left, the Union soldier is barely armed and clearly overburdened, carrying a rifle, knapsack, haversack, and overcoat, accompanied by the quote, “…bowed under 58 pounds of army essentials…our private was a soldier, but not just then a praiser of the soldier’s life.”

Opposing “The Union Soldier” stood “Lee’s Men,” armed to the teeth with a rifle, knife, bayonet, cap pouch, and revolver. The Confederate soldier’s description gave a different view of soldier life: “No soldiers ever marched with less to encumber them, and none marched harder or faster.”

Conceptual sketch of "Lee's Men" exhibit case, showing planned text, graphics, and artifacts.

This conceptual sketch of the “Lee’s Men” exhibit case was fulfilled almost exactly. The only pieces shown here but omitted from display are the shoes and sword.

The Confederate soldier’s case also includes an individual soldier, Randolph Fairfax, who “typifies the young manhood that both sides lost in the war.” By highlighting Fairfax and elevating the Confederate soldier in the Lost Cause tradition, this case tells a local and national story of an individual and his country at war and in reconciliation. Focusing on a local soldier gave visitors someone to identify with, and the subtle emphasis—consciously or unconsciously done—on the Confederate soldier and Southern manhood allowed exhibit planners to walk a tight line that emphasized mutual bravery and lost potential in both Union and Confederate soldiers. With honor to both sides, most visitors would find little to incite anger or division; instead, they could take pride in their roots, northern or southern.

Such shared honor belonged primarily, however, to white visitors. Perhaps the greatest sign of the times in our Mission 66 exhibits is reflected in what was missing at both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Centers. Neither exhibit includes any mention of slavery or the Emancipation Proclamation.

In a segregated park planning new exhibits amid the upheaval of the Civil Rights movement, a deep discussion of divisive and potentially offensive topics risked trouble. Certainly, grasping the importance of slavery and emancipation was and remains critical to understanding the Civil War. But was an American visiting public (predominantly white southerners) that was looking for reassurance in the past ready to consume these heavy subjects?

The overwhelming silence—both in the exhibits and planning documents—answers with a resounding “no.” Planners working to implement plans for a “Negro Picnic Area” on the Wilderness Battlefield had no intention of explaining the roots of segregation policies in the conflict that established freedom but not equality.

Through silence, inclusion, and emphasis, historians and planners constructed state of the art exhibits that crafted a narrative designed to “stimulate interest, provoke thought, afford a sense of realism, and provide a measure of understanding and enjoyment otherwise unattainable.” While this narrative falls short of today’s analytical standards, the exhibits fit neatly into the context and purposes of an age on edge from Cold War tensions and Civil Rights struggles. In terms of replacing their predecessors, these exhibits were well-organized by theme and visually appealing, rendering them leagues ahead of the earlier relic displays.

An understanding of the influence of society on our recently dismantled exhibits presents a conundrum to our current efforts as historians and exhibit planners. If our very competent predecessors were so swayed by the influences of their time, what evidence of our own shortcomings will remain in 50 years? How does society shape our interpretation of the Civil War today? What do you think?


Beth Parnicza


Sources in order of use above: Goals for new exhibits: Albert Dillahunty; Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, “Museum Prospectus for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park” (Fredericksburg, 1959), 2, in park files; Increased park visitation and war threat interest: “Master Plan for the Preservation and Use of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park: Mission 66 Edition,” Page 4 of 7, General Information section, and Volume 3, Section C Public Use Data, Page 3, in park files; Comparison between Korean fighting and Battle of Fredericksburg: Master Plan, Page 1, Interpretation section; The expressed goal of encouraging patriotism in the exhibits: “Master Plan,” Page 4 of Objectives and Policies section; For more reading on the emergence of the Lost Cause and its role in reconciliation: To grasp the tip of the iceberg, I recommend David Blight, Race and Reunion, which describes how celebrating southern manhood and southern heroes helped to bring the nation back together at the expense of the newly freed slaves, who were free but far from equal; Plans to establish a “Negro Picnic Area” in the Wilderness: Master Plan, Page 4 in Design Analysis section; Crafting a stimulating and provoking exhibit: Museum Prospectus, Page 1.

5 thoughts on ““A deepened pride in our nation’s history “: Crafting Exhibits in a Modern Park

  1. Dear Ms. Parnicza,

    What do I think? I think you are to be commended for your insightful words about difficult issues.

    I have always been interested in the civilian side of the Civil War, as much or perhaps more than military strategies and tactics. Thousands of books have been written about the battles, but few (including rare civilian diaries) have been written about the effect of the war in the Fredericksburg area on the civilian population. Trials and tribulations of those, through no fault of their own, were forced into extremely difficult situations, regardless of their race.

    Perhaps a “what if” exhibit might attract visitors. What if, TODAY, comfortable families were uprooted in various ways by a sweeping war that overran their homes, lifestyles, etc. A compare and contrast exercise, so-to-speak?

    And last, other nations have military museums/battlefields that cause controversy with visitors…Germany, Japan, Vietnam, etc. It would be interesting to me how do they handle hot-button issues?

    Bob Benzon

    • Bob,

      Thank you, and thanks for your thoughtful response. Your interest in the civilian side of the war is well-placed. It’s important for us to understand the impact of public opinion and activism (or lack thereof) on war, not to mention the more human aspects of individuals confronting the worst “what if” situations of their lives. When war strikes home, it’s a defining moment for armies, nations, and locals.

      I have seen a few exhibits that come close to the “what if” you describe–Shenandoah NP has folks calculate the value of homes and what the government paid for them in modern monetary value, which is a real eye-opener. I haven’t seen the exhibit, but I believe President Lincoln’s Cottage (http://lincolncottage.org/) did something similar by having an exhibit on modern slavery in conjunction with their commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation. Such an exhibit serves as a reminder that there are people still experiencing the kind of horrors and uprooting experiences that folks did during the Civil War, just in different circumstances and for different reasons. It’s a powerful exhibit tool, but it is risky and can rapidly become outdated.

      I wonder, as well, and wish I were more well-traveled to offer a thorough response! How do our museums about the Civil War compare to Europe’s museums about the Holocaust? How do our battlefields compare to WWI fields? I’ve heard impressions and ideas but don’t know myself.


  2. You have to consider how the museum ties into the experience of the battlefield by visitors. That is challenging because visitors consider these (often space deficient) buildings not only as museums but as facilities meeting their logistical needs (directions, restrooms, book store). Beyond that, though, the museum should give context and make sense of what visitors (who often are not well versed in history) see as they travel through the park. Given these constraints (visitor time and facility space) isn’t the real question what exhibits “connect” with visitors and meet their needs while satisfying the core functions of the facility?

    Is there a danger in trying to fulfill in battlefield parks what is better left to larger museums with more varied collections (which speak to interpretation in a modern context)? Conversely, it is often on the battlefield where signage at landmarks (such as civilian homes) best tells the Civil War story in an inclusive manner from a more contemporary perspective. And the simplest artifact in a battlefield museum sometimes tells the most effective story because it connects people to the past in ways that overtly interpretative exhibits don’t. And that connection, to the battlefield itself, is the essential part of the visitor experience.

    I think you pose a critical question regarding how society shapes interpretation. But that might have a more fundamental application, which is that our current generation is not going to be so much concerned with placing things in a modern context as having a modern experience of the subject, one which is more hands on. Maybe they will demand that an exhibit on Civil War telegraphy let them touch a replica instead instead of viewing and reading about an actual Civil War telegraph. Perhaps the exhibits will need to involve touch screens and be much more visual and auditory. Maybe they will need the flash of the fuse and the smell of cordite in real time.

    If we use traditional interpretation and just change what it is we create exhibits about, we still may miss the point, which is to get people engaged with history. It is a very worthy endeavor but incredibly challenging in a world which regards Woodstock as ancient history.

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