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History on the Road… Again

11/18/2011

Next week is Thanksgiving, and once the leftover turkey is safely packed away in the fridge and we all awake from our tryptophan-induced comas, we’ll need to figure out how to entertain our friends and family over the long weekend.

I’m sure many of you are already planning on coming in to town to see Mummy: Secret of the Tomb at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. If you’re in the neighborhood on Saturday (November 26) you should also stop by the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) to see the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission’s Civil War 150th HistoryMobile (HM)—an interactive “museum on wheels” housed in a 53-foot expandable tractor-trailer.

Because “Civil War” is in my job title I had the opportunity to play a small part in the HM’s creation, and I came away with five song-inspired observations about the HM (and museum exhibitions in general) that I thought I’d share.

1. LOSE YOURSELF (Eminem, 2002)

Although I didn’t think it was possible, you actually forget you’re inside an iron box that, in another life, could have been in an episode of Ice Road Truckers. The three recreated environments inside the HM may only be suggestive of a battlefield, a planter’s home, and a slave quarter, but they do stir real emotions.

2. CAN’T TOUCH THIS (MC Hammer, 1990)

I sometimes forget that “interactive” isn’t always synonymous with “computer.” Although the HM features quite a bit of digital technology, I’m gratified to see that people still like to learn and explore by turning, flipping, and twisting things.

3. EVERYDAY PEOPLE (Sly and the Family Stone, 1968)

The last room of the HM, entitled Loss, Gain, & Legacy, features the stories of forty people whose lives were affected by the war in Virginia. Although history is frequently said to offer a window to the past, my work on the HM and on the gallery exhibition, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia, suggests that we want history to be a mirror as well. We want to see ourselves reflected in the story. Although we look nothing alike, I’m drawn to the story of “Jack.”

4. THE WAY WE WERE (Barbara Streisand, 1973)

The stories in the HM may contradict what you thought you knew about the Civil War. That’s because the narrative of the war is constantly changing. Born of an incomplete historical record and often contradicting accounts, our history is a complex jumble of fact and fiction. The daily discovery of new information, however, allows our understanding of the past to become more complete with each generation of historians.

5. WE’VE ONLY JUST BEGUN (The Carpenters, 1970)

The story of Virginia’s Civil War is huge, and you wouldn’t think it could all fit in a 53-foot-long trailer. Guess what? You’re right! The HM is not intended to be the last word on the American Civil War, but we hope that for some people it may be the first of many.

Don’t take my word for it. Come and see it for yourself and then let me know what you thought of your experience by leaving a comment.

Andrew Talkov is the Head of Program Development and the Coordinator for Virginia’s Civil War at the Virginia Historical Society.

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