Wednesday, April 16, 2014
My name is Harry Kollatz Jr., and I’m a Civil War nerd.

Thus, “An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia,” which is at the Virginia Historical Society starting Feb. 4 and running through Dec. 30, is my kind of museum exhibition.

That it’s an exploded textbook is appropriate.

It could’ve been one of those giant museum shows that make you feel like a pinball among jarring, colorful, noisy efforts to “put you there.” But the designers of "An American Turning Point" allow you to bob along, drifting in and out of component sections, giving you islands of quiet text and striking graphics interspersed with 3-D moving images and audiovisual displays that highlight subjects such as why there are two Virginias and the challenges faced by a slave attempting to escape.

“It is the most complicated temporary exhibit we’ve ever had here,” Paul Levengood, VHS president and CEO, told me — 3,000 square feet, with more than 200 artifacts. The AV stations should, during the show's four-year odyssey through the state after leaving VHS, be “push-to-play."

“We want it to be easy to assemble,” observed Dale Kostelny, the exhibit's production manager, who worked to make the exhibit's setup into a “Tab A Fits Into Slot B” procedure.

This Civil War Sesquicentennial exhibition makes an admirable effort to cover an incredibly complicated subject and render it accessible to 21st-century visitors — in particular school-age ones who’ll be trooping through (I can already hear the muttered, “Cooool,” over the skull of a hapless casualty of Spotsylvania Court House — it's a reproduction, but still). Visitors of all ages will enjoy standing in the middle of a 3-D “lenticular mural” of the battle of Kernstown in progress.

Standing in front of this section myself, I thought about the old New Yorker cartoon in which an exasperated movie director has called a huge re-enacted Civil War battle to a sudden halt, and down center he's screaming at a guy in a World War I uniform: “What are you doing here?!”

"An American Turning Point" also addresses the confusion some may have about this period: why it was fought, and how, and what could it possibly mean for us today.

The telegraph demonstration rightfully calls the technology 19th-century “text messaging” and invites those who have devices to see if they can out-type the skilled telegraphers. The sample message is grim: The nation finds out that Abraham Lincoln, on April 15, 1865, has died of his gunshot wound. (I also discovered that “POTUS,” which I along with millions of others learned about from The West Wing, originated as telegraph shorthand for “President of the United States.”)

The display of banners from the war is also interesting: Here is a rare eight-star Confederate national flag, from 1861, just after Virginia joined the rebellion. Next to it is a flag made by the ladies of Petersburg for their city guard, featuring the fierce Virtu (with Joan of Arc breastplate) trouncing upon the armored tyrant. Until the Civil War, explained VHS staffer Rebecca Rose, Virginia didn’t have a flag. But the conflict caused the state to get one, followed by about eight others.

The VHS curators understood that this couldn’t be all about battles and leaders. Along the way you meet the nurses, politicians, housewives, merchants, African-American soldiers and slaves, writers, and photographers who made the slog through history, too, and were affected by the conflict's death, disease and privation. One section of the exhibit, “Making Do” and “Doing Without," concerns Southern civilian life.

There’s also a poignant corner emblazoned with the question, “War or Murder?”

“American Turning Point” is up at the VHS through Dec. 30, but my advice to you is: a) Don’t say, "I’ve got plenty of time" and wait until the last few days; b) don’t tarry until summer tourist season; c) if possible, go on a weekend so as not to get run over by the inevitable school groups and give yourself maximum time; and d) if you have out-of-town guests, take them.

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