Courtesy Gilder Lehrman Collection, NY and the John H. Motley Collection
An exhibit of slave shackles includes a set used for children.
An exhibit of slave shackles includes a set used for children. Courtesy Gilder Lehrman Collection, NY and the John H. Motley Collection
The American Civil War Center is located in buildings that once housed the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Va.
The American Civil War Center is located in buildings that once housed the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Va. Bill Crabtree
A new, $13 million museum in Richmond, Va., allows visitors to learn about the Civil War from the perspective of the Union, the Confederacy, and black people of the time. Housed in a restored gun foundry on the banks of the James River, the museum has received rave reviews from historians.
Near the site of the American Civil War Center is a spot on the river where slave ships docked 150 years ago. The museum contains a remarkable collection of 19th-century artifacts, as well as 21st-century multimedia displays.
Museum president Alex Wise says the goal is to present the big picture.
"One of the assets we have in this state is a lot of Civil War history," Wise says, "but there was no place you could go for an overview. Civil War history was told in pieces."
Wise is the former head of Virginia's office of historic preservation. He says museums can no longer just put saddles or uniforms behind a glass case.
"You have to give people something they can't get from the history channel or a book," he says.
The museum is located on the grounds of the former Tredegar Iron Works, which made canons and armor plating for the Confederacy. Inside, there are dozens of flat-panel video monitors, large photo banners, and a circular movie theatre that invites visitors to question what really sparked the war.
There's even an American Idol-style contest to pick your favorite cause of the Civil War. Four buttons on a panel allow visitors to choose among power, culture, money and civil rights.
Those multiple viewpoints are reflected in the museum's exhibits, as well, as the war is portrayed from the perspective of Southerners fighting for home, Northerners fighting for the Union, and slaves fighting for liberty.
The tool is meant to spark a debate, Wise says: "What were the ideals, the founding ideals of the country? And how did the Civil War flow out of disagreements about which of those ideals was primary, which ideals of liberty were primary?"
Other artifacts are from the Reconstruction, like a red and white Ku Klux Klan robe that looks like a clown suit. Then there are modern-day emblems of the Confederacy, including a toy model of the General Lee car from the TV show Dukes of Hazzard.
So far, the museum is a big hit with historians. Roger Davidson teaches African-American history at Coppin State University in Baltimore.
"The way that this museum deals with not just the causes of the Civil War or enslavement, but emancipation," Davidson says, "may be first time African Americans are given agency in a museum for the cause of freedom."