National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA
National Civil War Museum
High on a hill in Harrisburg sits the rather new National Civil War Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Open 7 days a week, it claims to be the only museum with fair and even-handed representation of all sides of the War Between the States. It sits in Reservoir Park at 100 Concert Drive, Harrisburg, PA 17103
Getting to the museum proved fairly easy. The museum website provides directions from various starting orientations and gives the term to type into any GPS device in order to arrive at the correct destination. Furthermore, numerous clear signs with the museum logo dot the highway exit ramps and the city streets leading to the museum. Happily, parking is ample and free.
The National Civil war Museum occupies a spacious, majestic brick building with two stories of exhibits. Additionally, there is a lecture hall. The day I visited, a free class on dance steps of the Civil War era was being conducted for any museum guests. Otherwise, I imagine that this space is used for both private and public education and events.
Civil War - Ken Burns productions
The Content of the Second Floor
Museum visitors are instructed upon arrival that this is a self-guided museum. A map suggests that one start on the second floor and work down. Those second floor galleries are
A House Divided 1850-1860
First Shots 1861
(Here I learned that Fort Sumter existed precariously vulnerable as a federal military property in a seceded state and that it was not even completely constructed. The few “Union” soldiers staffing it were woefully unequipped for an assault.)
Making of Armies
Weapons and Equipment
Campaigns and Battles of 1862
Camp Curtin – the Union military installment in Harrisburg which provided training, mustering, and hospital services
Reasons Men Fought
Civil War Music
Allegedly, there was a Battle Map of 1861-1862 Gallery, but I either did not know how to operate or interact with it, or it was not functional.
The Content of the First Floor
Costs of War – death tolls and medical considerations
Women in the War
Campaigns and Battles of 1864-1865
Battle Map of 1863-1865 Gallery. Same comments as above.
Lincoln, and Veterans
Civil War Amputation Surgery Display
War of Firsts poster
Kudos for these Features
Posters describing a “First.” In American history which occurred during the Civil War. This was saw the first military chaplains, first ambulance corps, first use of railroads to move troops, first use of railroad cars to mount weapons and fire therefrom, first submarine, first protecting of ships with iron cladding, first use of signal flags, and more. These are eye-catchy and memorable.
There is an interactive Game for children (of all ages) to send flag signals to a receiver screen. It is Civil War Wii.
Ten characters appear on small screens throughout the exhibits, each presenting 2-minute dramatizations of their role and opinions. They include Northerners, Southerners, men, women, rich, working-poor, free blacks, and slaves. As the visitors travel through the museum, succeeding screens update each character’s story from 1860 through post-war. This is VERY well done.
Room for Improvement
As Dr. Suess’s Grinch complained, “One thing I can’t stand is the noise, noise, noise, noise!” So many of the displays within a gallery included audio. At the best they bled into each other, however, usually it was far worse: they competed with each other. Picture a public school cafeteria at lunchtime and you will have a sense of all the sounds being produced. It is a shame because each, on its own, provided valuable information. The museum really needs to find a way to soundproof or isolate these exhibits so that each can be appreciated and clearly heard without competition from its neighbors.
Is it unbiased?
It seemed unbiased to me. However, I am a Pennsylvanian and perhaps could not recognize material offensive to persons with Confederate States ancestry. I thought that credit for any war new technology was given no matter who created it. Myths and facts were discussed. Moments of shared peace were displayed. Flags and uniforms and officers of both sides had their day. I did not sense anything g offensive - which I cannot say about a University of Virginia student guide who long ago described to the campus tour group in which I walked that such-and-such happened during “The War of the Northern Aggression.” You won’t find that attitude at this museum.
Photos and text copyright 2012 Maren E. Morgan
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