Visiting Richmond’s New American Civil War Museum

 

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Brand new American Civil War Museum, right next door to the National Park Service’s Richmond Battlefield Park Visitor’s Center (building on the left), at Richmond’s historic Tredegar Ironworks.

Back in May, I got to visit the new American Civil War Museum at the Tredegar Iron works. Like many of you, ever since it was announced the Museum of the Confederacy was joining forces and bringing their collection to the project, I’ve eagerly awaited the grand opening. So much so that I got there as soon as my teaching schedule allowed, which thankfully was only two weeks after they first opened the doors.

But really, I’ve been waiting even longer than that.  Fresh out of college I moved to Richmond in 1993 to get a masters degree at VCU and explore all of Virginia’s historic treasures. While the Commonwealth itself did not disappoint (and still doesn’t), I admit Richmond was a let down.

Monument Avenue’s Lost Cause statuary was impressive, of course, as was the White House and Museum of the Confederacy, and Hollywood Cemetery. But beyond that, the pickings were slim for a Civil War buff expecting a lot more, and wanting something that wasn’t steeped in the Lost Cause.

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The Lee Statue on the famous (now infamous?) Monument Avenue.

Even the Richmond National Battlefield Park was a disappointment, with its very outdated exhibits at the site of Chimborazo Hospital (and a film focused on the plight of a middle class white Richmond family during the war), and only small bits of preserved battlefield lands scattered around the eastern suburbs with minimal interpretation—-and that interpretation mainly focused on the Confederate perspective.

It was not the Richmond of which I’d daydreamed.

Fortunately, that began to change just as I arrived. I volunteered and then got a summer seasonal job with the park service, and over the next 8 years got to witness exciting and near constant changes at the park, as a really great staff of historians got more funding, installed more interpretive signs and trails in the park, acquired more land (they now have dang near all of Malvern Hill and Glendale, and an ever increasing amount of Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor), restored historic landscapes, and created a beautiful, cutting-edge visitor’s center in one of the remaining buildings of the historic Tredegar Ironworks.

Just as I left the city to return to Alabama to work on a PhD with Dr. George Rable, Richmond itself got in the updating game, cleaning up and restoring the historic canal walk on the river, repurposing crumbling old warehouses into modern apartments, and cleaning up the surrounding areas around the James River. Then the American Civil War Center opened up next door to the NPS visitor’s center at Tredegar.

The city had become much more of what I envisioned before going there, including now even a monument commemorating Lincoln’s triumphant visit to the city with his son just as the Capital of the Confederacy fell to Union forces.

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Tad & his dad in Richmond

Monument Avenue still lingers, but more inclusive stories are being told, with less Lost Cause distortions. There’s even interpretation of Richmond’s slave pens and markets.

And yet, something has still seemed missing. While the NPS center at Tredegar is great, it appropriately focuses on Richmond and the battlefields, and while their neighbor, the American Civil War Center, was telling a comprehensive story of the war in general, it was heavy on interpretation and light on relics.

Thus when it was announced that the museum was spending around 25 million to build a new, high tech, 28,500 square facility (much of it underground) in and around the Tredegar site, and that they would be incorporating relics from the Museum of the Confederacy, excitement was high that Richmond would now become THE premiere place for Civil War public history interpretation (as it should be).

So, does the museum live up to the high expectations and hype?

Well, yes, and no. Let’s just say this, it has enormous potential.

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Just inside the front doors.

First off, after walking through its beautiful entrance and lobby that encloses Tredegar ruins that were long exposed to the elements, and then past visually stunning enlargements of colorized war-time photographs (featuring a diverse cast of wartime faces), I was ready for an amazing visit.

Because of poor signage, however, it was difficult to figure out which door to walk into for the main exhibit gallery. I started to go in the “out” door, as did many others that I observed. That should be an easy fix though.

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Gallery entrance.

Once inside, I was surprised by how small the permanent exhibit space actually is. Having recently visited the two new Revolutionary War museums in Philadelphia and in Yorktown, I was perhaps expecting too much, as those facilities are huge and nicely spread out. This one takes you from 1861-1865 at comparatively warp speed.

Further, there was curiously little interpretation of the causes of the war, which was contrary to everything I expected considering all the hype about taking the war away from Lost Cause interpretation.

But here is the main problem: the museum is making great effort to tell a more inclusive and diverse narrative of the war, and the written interpretation does so. But the artifacts they have now are just not yet helping them tell that story.

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Solid interpretation. But unfortunately, few of the relics help tell this story

Yes, you won’t find many Civil War museums with an audio and visual presentation telling the story of an enslaved girl that was brutally whipped for allegedly poisoning her owner, or that displays slave shackles, or that interprets the post-war years by featuring a Reconstruction era KKK hood and garment.

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Not exactly a common site in a Civil war museum, though it should be.

The African American story, as well as the Union story, are both featured throughout the exhibits. There is also homefront and gendered history, but with few exceptions (like the ones just mentioned) the artifacts packed behind the glass cases are overwhelmingly the treasures from the old Museum of the Confederacy.

But Oh! What a collection it is! I won’t spoil it for you by naming too much, but you’ll be stunned at the personal wartime possessions on display that were owned by the pantheon of Confederate luminaries, from Jefferson Davis, to Lee, to Stonewall, to Jeb Stuart. (You know, all those dudes out there on Monument Avenue.)

Of course all this was on display at the old Museum of the Confederacy, but it makes it no less amazing to see them again, especially in this more inclusive context and in the new digs.  You’ll find yourself staring in awe at such things, seemingly tucked away in the corners.

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This display, for example, is a Stonewall Jackson fan’s dream come true.

Here’s a big tip: DO NOT rush through this museum. Read EVERY description of EVERY relic. What they have will blow your mind. Just one small example: the sword Lewis Armistead used to urge rebel soldiers forward into Union lines just as he was mortally wounded during “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg. But you’ll miss it and other jaw-dropping possessions if you aren’t paying attention.

And yet, as amazing as these things are, they are just not helping the museum to tell the story it strives to tell.

The battles themselves get shunted away to high tech electronic video boards that visitors can interact with, which is fine, I’d rather see visitors get out to the battlefields themselves if that is what they are looking for. But theoretically that means the museum should be focused on social and cultural history, and most of the interpretation is, but yet the most attention-grabbing relics are largely battle-related accouterment from southern soldiers and officers.

My guess is that the museum’s folks are aware of this problem, and that the acquisition of other relics must become their number one goal now that the space has been constructed and the doors open. (I hope they are aware of this auction, for example).  Having such stunning possessions from Lee, Jackson, and et. al, makes it all the more glaring that there is essentially nothing from Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln or etc. on display. What few Union relics are on display are related to POWs that were penned in Richmond’s warehouse prisons.

How nice would it be, for instance, to juxtapose the relics of Robert E. Lee, with those of Union General George Henry Thomas, contrasting the two Virginians and drawing attention to a southern white man that unlike Lee, refused to break his vow to the U.S. military to fight the constitution’s enemies, “both foreign and domestic.”

And there are precious fewer artifacts telling the African American perspective on the war. Don’t expect to see many rifles or other possessions carried by the USCTs that were among the city’s first liberators, for example. If you saw Harriet Tubman’s shawl at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, or Nat Turner’s bible there, you won’t find similar items here, despite the fact that the museum’s objectives and narrative would make those types of relics a perfect fit.

I really don’t want this to sound like a negative review, however. There is so much room for growth in this facility. Over time, I have no doubt that future acquisitions and perhaps loaned items will help the American Civil War Museum tell the story it is telling.

And I especially do not want to discourage anyone from visiting the museum in its current incarnation. On the contrary, go now and ASAP. I promise you will be awed by the facility’s location, design, and the amazing relics on display. And you’ll be impressed by its interpretation.

Let’s please give the American Civil War Museum all the support, encouragement, and positive “word-of-mouth” we can, as they are trying to tell important stories that will move Richmond, and us, even more away from the Lost Cause.

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Yes, that’s a rebel flag, but it is one that Tad Lincoln took home with him as a trophy after he and his father visited Richmond. How cool is that? Now THAT is the perfect context for displaying that thing.

 

Trump, evangelical Christians, and a history of fear: A review of John Fea’s Believe Me.

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. 994854356-1.jpgMy last blog posting was over two months ago.

I could blame vacation and general burnout, but the primary reason for my lack of blogging is that the #1 thing I would want to post about are the never-ending Trump outrages. And yet I find myself not wanting to write about Trump for one reason:

I am tired of hating him.

As my closest friends know, I have been grappling with the fact that Trump inspires so much sheer hatred in my heart. As I watch him destroy the dignity of the office, repeatedly lie about big and small things, separate families at the border, enact tariffs which will inflict wounds on our own economy, weaken the alliances that the post-WWII Western world has been built upon, describe the free press as an enemy of the state, and coddle up to murdering and tyrannical madmen, (just to name his most recent misdeeds), the anger in me swells. And every day it’s something new.

1*JRxEPJZ6EjasBIDh9GkPSw.pngIt’s exhausting, and I know that many of you feel exactly the same.

My Twitter followers and Facebook friends know I frequently vent my feelings in short diatribe postings, or by passing along news stories and the writings of others. But this has long become annoying to me, and I’m sure to others. Oh, how I long for the days when my Twitter feed and Facebook wall were filled mostly with interesting history-related stories, the good news of family and friends, sports commentary, or jokes and fun comments about pop culture.

Those are still there, of course, but are clouded and overwhelmed by the ever-frustrating and increasingly-frightening news. Living through world changing events in real time is fascinating as heck, but the fear and hatred it stirs has become oppressive.

And what good is all that fear and hate?

I’m a big believer that nothing good ever comes from hate. As MLK wrote (perhaps leaning on Romans 12:21), “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Perhaps Maya Angelo said  it best:  “Hate has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not yet solved one.”

Indeed, has it not been hatred and fear that has caused this current problem? As we know, Trump’s narrow election victory owes much to the fact that he received the support of 81% of evangelical Christians. It seems ironic that perhaps the most immoral man ever nominated for president received evangelical support.

But is it? And was it not their fear and hatred that helped make his victory possible?

That argument is at the core of historian and Messiah College Professor John Fea’s new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump5101e574-4c2f-4e5a-8b90-5366b66f02f1._CR63,0,375,500_PT0_SX300__.jpgPurposely choosing a publisher of religious books (Eardman’s), the Christian author’s main target audience seems to be other evangelicals. Yet anyone interested in understanding the 2016 election through solid historical context and analysis should pick up Fea’s fascinating and incisive work.

(Quick shoutout to the small independent bookstore where I picked up my copy,  Ernest & Hadley’s. Shop local, y’all.)

Like Fea, I too was dismayed that a large majority of fellow Christians embraced such an immoral man like Donald Trump, especially when considering that these were the same people that excoriated Bill Clinton, insisting that beyond his perjury, his sexual improprieties and other character flaws made him unfit for office. What happened? If character mattered then (and I believe that it did), why did it not seem to matter now?

Further, I wondered, how could evangelicals be blind to the fact that embracing Trump would only widen the conception of Christians as hypocrites? Couldn’t they see that the goal of spreading the good news would be severely hampered? Who would want to convert to a religion of such blatant hypocrisy?

Instead of letting such questions bewilder and anger him, Fea went looking for answers, and has reached what I feel are convincing explanations. Simply put, Trump tapped into the long standing evangelical tradition of using fear as a tactic, embraced their political playbook for recreating a nostalgic American past that never really existed, and rallied their leaders to his cause by seemingly offering positions of political power and influence. Fea concludes that many evangelicals “decided that what Donald Trump can give them is more valuable than the damage their Christian witness will suffer because of their association” with him.

Fea builds his case by providing a “short history of evangelical fear,” touching on Puritan Massachusetts, anti-Catholicism in colonial, revolutionary, and antebellum America, the fear of deism in the early republic, southern fears about race war and/or miscegenation that drove them into secession, the Nativist response to Jewish and Catholic immigrants, images.jpegand the modernist cultural forces of the 1920s that brought about the revival of the KKK and lynchings (and a war on the teaching of evolution).

Thus by the time of the Civil Rights movement, Fea demonstrates, evangelicals had a long history of revealing their fears in how they “responded to the plight of people who do not share their skin color,” as well as how they responded to anyone that “might challenge the power and privilege that evangelicals have enjoyed in a nation of Protestants . . ..” And those responses “have led to some dark moments” in the history of the United States.

Indeed.

After WWII, Fea narrates, evangelicals were dismayed by “a renewed emphasis on the separation of church and state, the removal of prayer and Bible-reading from public schools, the influx of immigrants from non-Christian Western nations, the intrusion of the federal government into their schools (desegregation), and the court’s endorsement of abortion on demand.”

As a result, the 1970s saw evangelicals turn against the forces of big government, making them a natural fit for the more than welcoming (and wooing) Republican Party. (Fea doesn’t point it out, but he reveals there was more at play here than just the infamous “southern strategy” that was based on blowing racial dog whistles).

Furthermore, Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” developed what Fea labels a “political playbook” in order to defeat the forces that seemed to be winning the cultural wars. mf1000.jpgSimply put, this playbook encouraged Christians to restore America to its Christian roots (which required historic revisionism to argue that America was founded solely by Christians, upon Christian principles) by contending for political power via the recruitment and financial support of candidates dedicated to using government to achieve the church’s religious goals.

Christians in political office would then place Christians in the courts, and these judges would limit the separation between church and state (which would allow the passage of laws enforcing Christian morality), and ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade. “While control of the presidency and the Congress is certainly important to the successful implementation of this playbook,” Fea argues, “the control of the Supreme Court is essential.”

And yet, despite forty years of following this playbook, by 2015 it had had little if any success. Abortion was still legal. The internet had made pornography more widely and easily available. Gay marriage was upheld by the Supreme Court. Crime rates seemed to have not dropped. America was becoming more ethnically and racial diverse than ever.  Some states had legalized the recreational use of pot. Christian church membership was dropping substantially. A man many Christians (ridiculously) believed was a foreign-born Muslim had been twice-elected president. Etc. etc.

And then came Trump. Despite his life-long commitment to greed, sexual infidelity and immorality, shady business practices, and outspoken crudeness, he quickly understood his best path to the White House must involve picking up the evangelical vote. Drawing to his side what Fea labels the “court evangelicals,” Trump learned from certain Christian leaders how to speak the language and embrace the playbook. These leaders saw a man that would not just give lip-service to the playbook, but would faithfully implement it and place them into positions of political power and influence.

These court evangelicals include the Christian Right (such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr.), the followers of “prosperity gospel,” (such as Paula White), and the Independent Network Charismatics (some of which insist they prophesied Trump’s victory and his role in their ultimate success). Donald-trump.jpgWooed by Trump’s apparent commitment to the playbook, these evangelicals have become his staunchest defenders, insisting his past does not matter, that he is a faithful Christian now (despite all evidence to the contrary), and even that he is the fulfillment of prophesy.

Fea’s work is thus powerfully enlightening, helping to explain why a man with Trump’s deficiencies would find favor with Christian evangelicals. Though he does not explore it, his work also explains why these long-time Republican faithfuls would embrace a man that campaigned on and has embraced so many anti-Republican Party policies (such as his hostile tariffs and questionable commitment to our traditional alliances and NATO responsibilities).

Further, Fea’s work helps explain why, despite Stormy Daniels and Trump’s continued deplorable behavior (such as his easily demonstrable lies and disgusting moral equivalencies), evangelicals refuse to abandon him. With Trump appointees taking judgeships, and with one on the Supreme Court and more possibly coming, why should they quit on him now when their playbook finally seems on the verge of success?

In his later chapters, Fea begins to more directly address his message to fellow evangelical Christians. Taking aim at the slogan “Make American Great Again,” the author rightfully asserts that there is no time in America’s history when things were “great” for a majority of U.S. citizens, and that our past is more often filled with dark and dangerous times for people that were not white male native-born (and heterosexual) Protestants.  Trump thus relies on nostalgia for a time that never really existed.

For most Americans, the evangelical playbook’s success would be regressive, not a restoration of greatness. (For those of you that have been watching Hulu’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale, how frightening does all this seem??) “For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear,” Fea asserts, “real American greatness is still something to be hoped for–not something to be recovered from an imagined past.”

On abortion, Fea argues that even if Roe v. Wade were overturned, the issue would go to the states, where certainly a large number would keep it legal. That impoverished red state women might not be able to afford travel to blue states would likely reduce the number of abortions, “but it will bring our culture no closer to welcoming the children who are born and supporting their mothers.” How much more could have already been done in America to end abortions, Fea ponders, had the billions of dollars given to pro-life candidates been spent on more economic, social, and cultural solutions to the problem, rather than political ones. Now there’s food for thought.

In his conclusion to Believe Me, Fea finds inspiration in the Christian leaders of the Civil Rights movement,mbb1-1.jpg
encouraging evangelicals to end their faith in the playbook, stop relying on the politics of fear and embrace a message of hope, be inspired by true history and not a nostalgic version of it, and seek to shape American culture through more humble and less political means (you know, like Christ).

“Too many [evangelical] leaders (and their followers) have traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges,” Fea concludes, arguing that we should thus not be surprised by the number of people leaving the Christian church altogether.

Believe Me is powerful stuff, made all the more so by Fea’s readably jargon-free prose, confident authorial voice, and gently encouraging tone. I have some quibbles with it: I would have liked an organization that maintained a more chronological flow, racial dynamics needed a bit more emphasis, and his conclusions seemingly disregards the political agenda of the Civil Rights movement. Fox News and political tribalism needed to be in there somewhere, too.

I think his conclusion also misses the opportunity to point out that African American Christianity has almost always centered on a message of hope for future justice, helping blacks endure bleak times in America. That’s a powerful contrast to Fea’s outlining of the white evangelical history of using fear.slavery-2.jpg

I’ve long awaited Fea’s book, and it did not disappoint. If you have read much of my blog, you know that I often express my belief in the view of history that embraces the idea that the “arc of the moral universe” bends toward justice. These times that we are living in however, are a great reminder that it is our responsibility to keep it bent in the right direction. American history has always shown that this involves fighting against powerful forces, so we should not be surprised by what we are up against now, as unprecedented as many of these events are.

I see much to be excited about, as perhaps the Trump backlash is helping to end political apathy in America. And yet, as I acknowledged above, the unrelentingly disturbing and frightening news has been weighing me down with hatred.

Fea’s book has thus come at just the right time for my soul, demonstrating that fear and hatred are what have given us Trump’s America. So, as he concludes, it must be resisted with humility and hopeful determination that looks forward and not back. The resistance can’t be driven by negativity and fear.

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Damn right.

 

 

The Beguiled (1971) vs. The Beguiled (2017). Which one is really a Civil War movie? Which one is better?

 

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Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in The Beguiled, 2017 (left), and Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled, 1971 (right).

Well, I saw Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, and despite my skepticism about remakes, I really enjoyed it. Yet because it had been many years since I saw the 1971 original, I decided to watch it again to contrast with the new. Not surprising (at least to me) the original is somewhat better. What is surprising, however, is that I believe it is superior because it handles the Civil War and slavery more effectively than the remake.

Warning: I’m going to have as few spoilers as I can, and I will warn you when a big one is coming, but if you want to go into the movie completely fresh (especially if you have never seen the original) you should probably skip this until you have seen it.

The quick summary of both films (which are based on a 1966 novel) is pretty simple:  During the Civil War, a southern school for girls has been reduced to just five students, a teacher, and a headmistress that all have “no better (or safer) place to go” during the conflict. They take in a wounded Union soldier (Clint Eastwood in the original, Colin Farrell in the remake) discovered suffering in the woods nearby. Despite their initial disdain for the “blue-belly,” he slowly charms the women, igniting jealousies and the pent-up sexual frustrations of all the females of different ages living in the house. As a result, some pretty bad things happen.

Coppola’s remake is quite good, largely because of her undeniable directorial skill, the cinematography and perfect lighting, and the film’s hypnotic pacing.  As with other movies I tend to relish the most, it is not in a hurry to tell its story.  There are lingering shots of scenery, mostly slow, quite moments, and few quick edits. It tells its story with visuals that effectively situate the audience in its time and place.

Yet what I appreciated the most was its use of sound. It does not rely on a musical score to tell the audience how they should feel at any given moment, and this silence makes the film’s house and its inhabitants seem all the more authentic, isolated, and vulnerable. One minor exception is a scene when the movie reaches its dramatic shift in tone, featuring some low orchestral music. Yet even here the music is low volume, only adding to the “slow burn” effect of the film.

Instead, most of the music we hear is generated by the characters. There are two scenes featuring parlor music, the best of which has one of the girls playing the beautiful (and popular at the time) “Lorena” on the harpsichord while the others join in singing. (Hopefully Christian McWhirter, an antebellum and Civil War music scholar, will soon comment on the authenticity of these scenes).

Other than that, most of the sounds we hear come from real life: birds, crickets and frogs,  floorboards creaking in the antebellum mansion, and in one particularly important scene, the sound of buttons ripped off a dress and then skittering across the wooden floor (which is way more erotically intense than any musical score could have ever been).

On the other hand, the original film is weakened by a score that sounds like it came from one of those campy Hammer Studios horror films of the 1950s and 60s, or from an episode of Night Gallery. This does ratchet up the creep factor, but gives the movie a campy feel, playing like a surreal nightmare, or an erotic dream gone bad. Coppola’s soundtrack choices more realistically set her film in the real world.

Further, I went into the remake thinking it would probably just be a hyper-sexualized version for 2017 audiences (and the trailer helps create that impression), yet just the opposite actually turns out to be true. The 1971 film is much more vulgar and lurid,  featuring a partially nude sex scene, a dream sequence with a threesome, and an incestuous storyline told through flashbacks—not to mention much more suggestive dialogue.

Coppola commendably opts for a “less-is-more” approach, never exposing more skin than the soldier’s bare chest and quick shots of female outer thighs.  Yet it is still smoldering stuff (perhaps all the more so because of the restraint—Hollywood, please take note), and the pent-up sexual desires let loose by the soldier’s presence are still what drive the horrific things that happen.

And yet, as a history film, the original is superior. It makes clear it is set during the Vicksburg Campaign (although it is less clear whether the house is in Louisiana or Mississippi). Characters talk about General Grant commanding troops driving toward Vicksburg via Champion’s Hill, both armies are nearby and make appearances, and the ladies are stuck in-between. They keep an ever-watchful eye from the rooftop for troops,  expressing fears that at any moment soldiers might come, take what they have, and rape them.

(I was particularly pleased to hear one young girl indicate she thought Yankees had tails. It is a comical line, but an authentic allegation that Southerners used to demonize Union troops, mainly in an effort to make their enslaved population afraid to run to northern lines).

In the original, the women are clearly vulnerable to the lusts of both armies. In one scene, some Rebel soldiers show up at the house late at night, ostensibly to look in on the girls’ safety, but clearly they have more on their minds. The headmistress (Geraldine Page, in a fine performance) defiantly shoos them away to protect the Union soldier she is harboring, but also the young girls in her charge.  The younger girls don’t understand why they should be afraid of their own Rebel troops, and are told that there are bad men in both armies.

That the film features this scene is all the more remarkable given that at the time it was made, Hollywood’s standard Civil War trope (established by movies like Gone With The Wind) was that of Union troops preying on white southern women while chivalric Rebel soldiers (and even their slaves) tried to protect them.

In contrast, Coppola’s movie is set in Virginia in 1864, which is established by an opening subtitle. The ladies also dutifully keep a rooftop eye out for approaching troops, yet the film never makes clear whether or not the events are playing out during the Overland Campaign. Some vague dialogue suggests this to be the case (you’d have to know your Civil War history to deduce it, however), and based on that assumption the school seems to be somewhere between Fredericksburg and Richmond. Yet this is not clear at all. The war’s specific events do not concern Coppola.

Further, the main armies are nowhere to be found (and besides the Union soldier, no other Yankees). This takes away the realistic dynamic that the isolated women are vulnerable to bad men from either army, and thus reverts us back to the old Hollywood trope of the straggling yankee soldier endangering innocent southern women. As in the original, a few Rebel troops come knocking on the door late one night, but they are not lusty men on the prowl, the headmistress (Nicole Kidman, in an Oscar nomination-worthy performance) provides them food, and they leave after having been a threat to just the hidden Union soldier. Coppola’s choice lessens the precarious situation into which the Civil War has placed these isolated women.

***Ok, this next paragraph has a bigger spoiler, skip it if you want to avoid that.

And while we are on Civil War movie tropes–the original features an amputation scene that is not particularly gory by today’s standards, except in how it brilliantly uses sound. Yes, this gives us the stereotypical amputation-without-complete-sedation scene that mars so many Civil War films, but given that the setting is a seminary with limited resources and not a hospital (or even field hospital), it comes across as realistic and carries the movie’s biggest horrific jolt. In contrast, Coppola skips the actual amputation and all we see is the burial of the limb. This is another choice I feel weakens the remake.

The most important distinction between how these two movies handle the Civil War, however, involves slavery. The 1971 version is far superior, if only because it does not ignore the “peculiar institution.” The only way the remake even acknowledges slavery is when early in the film the Union soldier is told the slaves have all run away. This is realistic, of course, especially since the film is set in 1864. But it robs us of all the racial dynamics of the time and place the story is set.

In the original, one of the well-to-do girls refuses to perform field labor because, she says, it is “nigger work,” openly using such language in front of an enslaved woman still with the seminary.  In Coppola’s movie, the young white girl just works poorly because she is bored, and the enslaved character is missing altogether.

True, the original film is not exactly a model of how to effectively interpret the lives of enslaved women.  However, in a scene between the black woman and the soldier, it is made clear she hides her disdain for slavery from her white owner. The film hints at the war’s bigger issues when the Union soldier tells her that the two of them should be natural allies, to which she expresses doubt that northern soldiers were fighting for blacks, one way or the other—a statement he does not challenge. The exchange rings true, (especially since he is a New York soldier, not an New Englander).

Further, we learn she was in love with a man enslaved on the same plantation, but lost him when he ran away after hearing the master intended to sell him.  Later in the film, we discover through flashback that she was being raped by her master.

Thus in just a few small scenes and moments, the 1971 film touches on the causes of the war, the debatable nature of soldier motivations in regards to slavery, the masks of the enslaved, and the rapes and slave sales that tormented enslaved African Americans and separated them from their loved ones. In a film filled with sinfulness, the antebellum South’s biggest sin of all is not totally ignored, as it is in the remake.

It really is a shame that Coppola took the black character and slavery completely out of her movie (especially since they were in the novel). In 2017, the scenes between the enslaved women and the Union soldier could have been written in a truly impactful way, only adding to the film’s strength. With an already strong female cast, a talented black actress would have taken things up another notch. That a 1971 movie did a better job of  dealing with slavery than a 2017 one is a discredit to Coppola’s film, and I have to agree it thus warrants the criticism it has received on this score.

Still, there was much I loved about Sofia Coppola’s reimagining of the The Beguiled (its atmospheric lighting and sound, beautiful cinematography, and less-is-more approach), and from a film-making point of view it is by far the superior film. Not to mention that this cast (Farrell, Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and the rest of the young girls) is uniformly strong.

(And they don’t have exaggerated and ridiculous southern accents! Praise be! Oh, and unlike in the original they all wear shoes. Not sure why the girls are all running around barefoot in the 1971 version, unless the sight of ankles and feet are supposed to amp up the smoldering Victorian sexuality).

Yet despite the campy feel of the 1971 original, the motivations of every character are much more clear (and the headmistress in particular is a more complex and fleshed out character), slavery is handled better (if only because it is handled at all), and ultimately it is definitely a Civil War film, rather than just a film set during the Civil War. (Despite what historian Gary W. Gallagher maintains in his book, Causes, Won, Lost, and Forgotten).

Why? Well, the best way I can say it without giving too much away is this: In the remake, the Union soldier is ultimately the victim of his own bad decisions, yes, but mainly he falls victim to his emotional response to a traumatic event. In the original, he is definitely a victim of his even more dastardly behavior and reactions, but mainly he is the victim of the perilous position the women are placed into because of the location of troops during the Vicksburg Campaign.

(Oh, and Geraldine Page’s headmistress is one messed up lady. Nicole Kidman’s, not so much.)

See them both! (The original is streaming now on HBO-on-Demand and HBO Go, and is available on Amazon Video).

Visiting our two new American Revolution museums

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Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution (left) and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (right)

My “travel blog” continues today. Two of the four brand new museums I recently visited were Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia.

My group of history nerd friends headed to Philadelphia after our day in DC (in which I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture), deciding to go via Annapolis and the Maryland Eastern Shore/Delaware route rather than up I-95 North through Baltimore. What a great decision! Anyone that has ever travelled on I-95 north of Richmond (all the way to Boston) will tell you to avoid it at all costs if you can. Not only did our route cut down on the toll charges, but it was a relaxing drive with very little traffic as we came through in the late evening. Having driven the stressful I-95 route many times (which sucks no matter what time of day or night it is), I can tell you, this was an extremely nice alternative. If you are traveling from DC to Philadelphia, I highly recommend it (sorry, Baltimore).

Our hotel was only a short walk from the museum (I also recommend the Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District. I have stayed there twice now and it is easy walking distance from just about everything you want to see in Philly). The new museum is in a great location (the site of the old visitor’s center), across the street from the First Bank of the US, and next door to the historic (and delicious) City Tavern (don’t miss the dining experience there). Before construction began on the brand new building, they found about 82,000 relics from colonial and 19th century Philadelphia while excavating the site.

The new facility is visually appealing on the outside and strikingly beautiful inside, featuring a grand spiraling staircase. The ground floor contains the obligatory introductory movie (honestly I don’t recall much about it), and then you ascend the stairs to the main galleries.

Here you are immediately immersed into the history, as a film projected on a wall around and above you places you in the middle of the pulling down of the King George III statue in New York (an event that took place on July 9, 1776). This first room asks you to question why the colonists came to despise a king that they once celebrated with a monument. I don’t think the museum’s planners intended a connection to our current wave of dismantling monuments, but it is a good reminder that there are precedents for Americans tearing down monuments when they no longer wanted to lionize men that they once did. It seems our revolutionary generation was not against “erasing history.”

The tight hallways then usher you through the exhibits, starting with George III’s coronation and ending with the New Republic. Unlike some museums, there is no guesswork involved in where to go and what to view next, as tight corridors snake through chronologically arranged displays. These are a nice mix of relics, interpretation, and immersive experiences.

The core of the objects on display were first obtained in the early 20th century by Reverend W. Herbert Burk, a collector/amateur historian from Valley Forge who obtained the pieces and later bequeathed the collection to the Valley Forge Historical Society. Some of the objects were then loaned out to other institutions, but most of them sat in warehouses waiting for the organization to build a large facility to display it all. That didn’t come until the early 2000s when the collection was handed over to the planners of the Museum of the American Revolution, who then spent nearly two decades cataloging the relics, planning the museum, raising funds, constructing the 118,000 square foot facility, and finally openings the doors in April 2017.

On display are such items as a pocket bible that was carried by a soldier during the Battle of Bunker Hill, Benjamin Lincoln’s sword, some of Patrick Henry’s law books, remnants of the aforementioned destroyed statue of George III, silver cups used by Washington and his staff, a powder horn used in the Battle of Fort Washington, a wooden plank from Concord Bridge (seriously cool), and a sash that Washington used early in the war to distinguish his rank and which he is seen wearing in the famous portrait painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1776.

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Washington wearing the sash in the Peale painting (left), and the sash on display

The relic collection is amazing, but the museum is also heavy on exhibits that use technology and carefully constructed sets and life-sized figurines to immerse visitors into the times. For instance, you’ll stand under Boston’s Liberty Tree, smell the tea that was cast into the Harbor, sit in replica chairs in a mockup of Independence Hall, get shot at during a skirmish with British troops, and (my favorite of all) stand among elders of the Oneida Nation as they make the decision to support the Patriots in the Revolution. (It is even way cooler that it might sound, and FYI, the Oneida Nation was one of the museum’s biggest financial contributors).

As the presence of the Oneida Nation suggests, the emphasis is on inclusiveness, and everyone in my group agreed that the Museum of the American Revolution does this exceptionally well. Instead of having a women’s section, or an African American section, or Native American section, etc., those people, their experiences, the roles they played in shaping the Revolution, and (most important) how it effected them, is fully, appropriately, and effectively interwoven into the narrative at nearly every step along the way.

This is the way that I think history should be done, not just in museums, but in textbooks and classrooms. I am not a fan of segregating people that were not caucasian men off in their own museum sections, book sidebars, or separate lectures, because that in itself suggests that they are not included in the mainstream narrative. For instance, I’ll never deliver a lecture titled “African Americans in the Revolution,” or “Women in the Civil War,” because I feel when done correctly, those groups show up in meaningful ways in every lecture. In my mind, the Museum of the American Revolution is now a model for how to do this effectively. Other museums, and teachers, take note.

The crown jewel in the museum’s collection is the exterior section of one of George Washington’s headquarter tents (his office and sleeping tent). Once you have finished your trip through the exhibits, you’ll be sent into a movie-theater-like room where a high tech audio/visual program introduces the history of the tent and its usage during the war. The climax is the reveal of the tent, which you’ll never come anywhere near arm’s reach to, as swelling music and dramatic dialogue dictate exactly how you should feel as you view the relic. I found this presentation to be a bit overly dramatic/cheesy. (“The Republic, like the tent, endures”), but I’ll admit it was effective, leaving you feeling like you have seen and experienced something quite amazing.

Visitors should know, however, that Washington had two campaign tents, and the interior of the other one (the dining and meeting tent for Washington and his officers) is at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor’s Center at the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. Yet not only do they have the interior of the dining/meeting tent, they possess the interior of the sleeping/office tent (the exterior of which is what they are displaying in Philadelphia) as well as its poles. Further, without the stirring music and grandiose rhetoric, the Yorktown display is set up in a way that allows you to walk part-way inside the tent (you are separated from it by glass). Personally,  I like the tent display by the National Park Service in Yorktown much better. It is immersive and powerful without the high tech and overly dramatic fluff.

And speaking of Yorktown, the other new American Revolution museum is there at the site of what was formally known as the Yorktown Victory Center. After 50 million in upgrades, the institution has recently opened a new museum dedicated to telling the story of the whole Revolution. My group visited it two days later (after spending a day on Maryland’s Eastern Shore tracking down Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. More on that in my next posting).

Like the one in Philly, the building is immediately impressive and welcoming, with a brand new smell and shine. First up is once again the obligatory intro movie, but the Yorktown film is far more original than the one in Philadelphia (and most other historic sites). Set in the early 19th century, the film depicts a traveling carnival-type show that uses high tech (for the times) displays and a charismatic barker (“gather round, ladies and gents!”) to tell the story of the American Revolution to a group of enthralled children and adults. I really appreciated the originality of this film’s introduction to the museum’s interpretive themes. You really feel as though you are about to experience something special.

The museum does not disappoint. Honestly, the thing I immediately liked most about it is that it is open and airy, containing far more places to sit down among the exhibits than are available in the Philadelphia museum (for a weary traveler with a strained back and tired feet, this was a godsend).  It too is laid out in mostly easy to follow chronological order (although the drawback to the openness is that in contrast to the tight corridors in Philly, there are a couple of spots where it is not clear where you should go next to maintain the chronological flow. But that doesn’t last for long and is not a major problem.)

The Yorktown museum has less relics (though there are many, and some nice pieces, such as pistols owned by Lafayette), relying mostly on the interpretation and immersive exhibits.

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Two of Lafayette’s pistols on display at Yorktown

Unlike Philadelphia’s museum, Yorktown’s focuses more attention on the “big name” Founders and their influences. For instance, the Enlightenment, the philosophes, and their impact on the Founders is largely missing in Philly, and less attention is paid to the standard pantheon of Founding Fathers. These men get more of their just due in Yorktown.

Yet, while the Yorktown museum also strives for an inclusive story, it commits what I consider the sin of mostly (not exclusively) segregating women, African Americans, and Native Americans into their own separate sections.

In defense of the museum, these exhibits feature solid interpretation and derive from a genuine and non-patronizing effort (there are no “tokens” here). I just think there is a better way.

Further stemming from efforts at inclusiveness, the museum has exhibits on the typical life and the homes of colonial and revolutionary Americans of all classes.  I found this to be an odd waste of space, as Colonial Williamsburg is nearby, and anyone visiting the area will likely be spending time there. (The Philadelphia museum, for instance, spends little time on Benjamin Franklin or even the Continental Congress, presumably because there are famous areas nearby where those stories are explored in detail).

As in Philadelphia, technology is used to draw you into the Revolution, as an especially neat exhibit features a battle simulation game in which visitors can compete against the computer, or each other, and then learn how the real battle played out. Yorktown also has a Liberty Tree exhibit, yet upstages the Philly museum because visitors can type in a message that is quickly posted electronically on the tree’s lanterns. (I may or may not have posted something about being vigilant against tyranny and the need to resist chief executives that obstruct justice and decry a free press).

Far and away, however, the coolest thing I found at either museum was Yorktown’s immersive film on the Battle of the Capes and the Yorktown Siege. It is only about 12 minutes long, but is rather amazing. As you sit surrounded on three sides by film screens, you’ll feel the sea air in your face, smell the coffee being served to troops in the entrenchments (seriously, the coffee), feel the rattle of shell explosions and thunder, and be surrounded by fog and smoke during the Alexander Hamilton-led attack on redoubt # 10. The combat scenes are beautifully filmed and thrilling, yet not gruesomely realistic. Yes, other museums have similar presentations, but this one if by far the best I have ever seen (I watched it three times!) It alone is worth the price of admission.

The Yorktown museum includes a living-history area, where siege lines, military encampments, and even a colonial farm are replicated. My group did not have time to visit this area, and it didn’t seem to be much different than what has long been available at the previous Yorktown Victory Center. Still, it should be noted this alone makes a visit to the Yorktown museum a much different experience than the one in Philadelphia.

In both museums, all the high tech bells and whistles are largely designed to deliver the message that the American Revolution and our experiment in republican government are far from over. The last exhibits in both focus on the fact that our nation’s history is largely the story of increasing freedoms for peoples and groups that our Founders left out when creating a government to protect individual liberties.

Despite powerful and significant opposition, slow and halting progress, and significant times of retrogression, we’ve continually forced the United States to live up to and expand the promises of the Revolutionary generation in ways that the Founders never intended or even envisoned. Instead of canonizing them, their work, and their design for our government as infallible, we’ve honed, expanded, and bettered what they started. It is up to us to continue to do so.  Thus, both museums stress, the Revolution continues, and whatever it becomes is up to our current values and actions, as well as our vigilance and resistance to those that would turn the Revolution backwards.

It may have been because I was rushed at the end of the day through the final exhibits at Yorktown, but I felt the Philadelphia museum delivered this message more powerfully. As you exit the exhibits, you very literally look into the faces of the current generation of revolutionaries. (Hint: it is us).

Bottom line: Both of these new museums are exceptional and dedicated to telling an inclusive story of the American Revolution.  The intro movie is more unique at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, the facility is more comfortable, and the Yorktown battle presentation is by far the coolest and most successfully immersive exhibit at either site. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution more effectively tells its inclusive narrative, has more awe-inspiring relics, and more inspiringly delivers its message.

Thus the Philadelphia museum is the superior one, but not by much (and perhaps the outdoor living history displays at Yorktown make the experience there superior in the end).

I highly encourage you to make it a goal to see visit both institutions.

Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood!

Back from vacation!

It has been a while since my last posting, and of course much has happened (Trump and terrorist related), but for the next few days I’m going to turn this into a travel blog, detailing and reviewing the four brand new history museums that I visited on my trip.

I’ll start today with the big one: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Like many of you, I’ve been anxiously awaiting my chance to visit this amazing facility, and I can tell you that despite my high expectations,  I was not disappointed.

It didn’t start out that way. As I am sure you are aware, the only advance tickets at this point must be reserved months ahead of time (they won’t be taking orders again until July, for September visits!). I failed to do so, which means I had to get up at 6:30 AM on the morning of my visit (last Thursday, May 18, 2017) to try and snag some same-day tickets on the internet. Despite the fact that three of us were trying to get the tickets, we all struck out, and they were sold-out for the day in a matter of 15 minutes (or less). We were saddened, but decided to make the best of the day by visiting other DC sites we had never seen, or had not seen in a while. This sent all four in my group scattering in different directions.

There was still one more possibility, however. The museum gives out a very limited number of “walk-up” tickets at 1 PM, and I was the only one in my group that decided to give it a shot despite the odds. I showed up at around 12:30, and the line was already a monster. I had little hope.

But then a miracle occurred. As I took my place at the back of the line, a museum employee was working her way around asking for veterans or first responders. It was not until she made it to two people just in front of me that she found two of them, a married couple. Pulling them out of the line, she said she could take them straight in, as well as two others as their guests. They had no others with them, so one woman spoke up immediately and  uncouthly begged, “take me! take me!” So she was chosen. When asked who else they wanted to take inside as a guest, the couple demurred (we were all strangers, after all), so the museum employee asked where they were from. Would you believe it? They said “Alabama!” (Even better, they were Alabama fans, not Auburn).  I then spoke up and said, “me too!” Which got me chosen as their guest! Yep, I was in the massive walkup line for all of 5 minutes before I got to walk right into the museum. I chalked it up to good karma. 🙂 Roll Tide.

Once inside, I quickly submerged to the underground bottom floors where the museum begins shuffling visitors through a chronologically displayed tour of American history. The design is brilliant, as the early exhibits deal with European history and conceptions of race, as well as the powerful West African kingdoms, in the 1400s. These are laid out in a way that shows the convergence of the two, and at the same time  gradually crams visitors tightly together in the replica hull of a “Middle Passage” ship. It was very dark and cramped, as I viewed slave shackles, original beams and planks from a slave cargo ship, and other Atlantic slave trade relics. It was a powerful and sobering start.

As the timeline-advances from Colonial to Revolutionary America, the rooms get slowly larger as the interpretation takes on the paradoxical nature of the American Revolution and its impact on slavery. Eventually, I emerged into a large room with the opening words of the Declaration of Independence looming massively large overhead and an impressive life-sized statute of Thomas Jefferson presiding over the scene. He stands in front of a wall constructed from bricks representing the number (and names) of the slaves he owned. (The exhibit takes it as a given that he fathered Sally Hemings’ children). Pictures do not do justice to the powerful nature of this interpretation and display design, especially as you enter the large room after being cramped in the tighter spaces.

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From there, the museum takes you through displays covering slave life and resistance (both violent and subtle), abolitionism and sectionalism, the role of African Americans in the Civil War, and finally Reconstruction (embracing Eric Foner’s interpretation of both the failure and the small but extremely important successes of the Reconstruction era). Relic highlights here include Nat Turner’s small bible (awesome), a large cotton gin, a slave master’s whip (on loan from Oprah Winfrey), Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal, first edition copies of slave autobiographies, and most impressively, a full sized slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina (not a reproduction, the real deal).

This first (underground) floor is simply amazing. If the museum were just this first floor, it would still be a remarkable facility.

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Nat Turner’s bible. Just wow.

At that point, visitors climb a ramp up to the second floor, where exhibits focus on the early 20th century/Jim Crow Era, as well as the modern Civil Rights movement. Here, displays and relics focusing on the cultural construction of black stereotypes and their purposes are particularly powerful and well done, as are those that deal with black migration during the world wars. I felt that while the modern Civil Rights movement displays were extensive, they were less than comprehensive. Still,  the Emmett Till exhibit was particularly powerful, especially the viewing of his coffin. (I came in expecting to be shaken up by the sight of it, and I was). This rather morbid display is crucial to what the entire museum is trying to accomplish.

Besides the coffin, relic highlights here include two of the dolls used in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, IMG_20170518_150909466.jpga full sized and segregated railroad car, a bucket that MLK used to soak his feet after the Selma March, and most imposing, a plane used in training the Tuskegee Airmen.

Lastly, the ramp takes you up again to the final chronologically arranged exhibits, using 1968 as its starting point for carrying visitors through the ongoing fight for Civil Rights, culminating with Obama’s presidency.  (I was born in the momentous and eventful year of 1968, so it really interested me to pause and consider the ways that my own life growing up in Birmingham, Alabama played out during, and was shaped by, these more modern events and cultural transformations).IMG_20170518_152719854.jpg

Most interesting to me were the displays dealing with the role that 70s and 80s television and movies played in shaping and changing perceptions of African Americans. Here, Bill Cosby was noticeably missing from the narrative. This is understandable given his current troubles, but I feel The Cosby Show and its creators and cast deserve to have its very important cultural impact significantly explored in the museum.

Some will question the ending of the history lesson with Obama, but I have no doubt the museum will continue to evolve and is not ending the story with our first black president as a means of embracing the concept of a “post racial” society. The last video that we see before emerging on the ground floor contains a clip of Obama’s brilliant speech at the Pettus Bridge in Selma (I am convinced it will go down as one of our greatest presidential speeches), in which he strongly rebukes those that believe there has been no racial progress in this country, yet insists that the artificially and purposely created barrier of race is far from dismantled.

As the museum’s interpretations are largely focused on our artificial construction of race that has prevented us from living up to our greatest founding promises, this ending is appropriate. The museum definitely embraces the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” interpretation of American history, (which is physically conveyed as visitors start in the darkened lowest floor, slowly rising via ramps to more airy and elevated spaces) while still acknowledging that it is our responsibility to fight the powerful and deeply entrenched forces that have and would bend it off course and backwards (hence the importance of uncomfortable relics like slave shackles, whips, pictures of lynchings, and Till’s coffin). It is a sobering presentation and ending, but a clearly hopeful one.

From there, visitors can explore the above ground floors that take you on a less chronological tour through the American past, focusing on the cultural and pop cultural impact of African Americans in the shaping of the United States. I was disappointed by the jazz exhibits, but the TV and film and sports sections were quite good. Highlights included a short film on the transformation of the depiction of blacks in movies, as well as relics like Chuck Berry’s guitar and convertible Cadillac, the track shoes Jesse Owen wore in the ’36 Olympics, the gloves Joe Lewis used in his rematch with Max Schmeling, and Jackie Robinson’s uniform.

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Joe Lewis’ boxing gloves

But these just scratch the surface of what is upstairs (they even have Eddie Murphy’s jacket from the first Beverly Hills Cop movie), as these cultural exhibits are heavier on objects than they are on interpretation (the reverse is true in the below ground, chronological history sections). These exhibits are more fun and certainly entertaining.

I spent a total of about 4.5 hours in the museum, only because I did not get in until 12:30ish. I definitely needed more time.

Besides not having enough hours to do the upstairs portions more justice, I was mostly disappointed by the number of kids and teens frolicking around seemingly oblivious to the remarkable facility’s interpretive power. Don’t get me wrong, I saw a large number of youngsters transfixed and interested in the exhibits (and there are many high tech and “immersive” exhibits meant to draw them in and get them pondering what kinds of choices they would have made if they had been in our past), but those that were treating it like a playground made me feel sorry for all the people that have been trying to get into the museum and were not as fortunate as myself (like the three friends I traveled with). All in all, the museum was not as successful at keeping the attention of children as were the three other museums I saw on my trip (more on those in later postings).

My final assessment: A few quibbles aside, the museum is every bit as amazing as you have heard and read about. I was astounded by the relics, at times numbed by the experience, and inspired by its sobering, yet ultimately hopeful interpretation of United States history.   A+.

Get there ASAP.