Discovering the Civil War at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
The Discovering the Civil War exhibition at its previous venue, the Henry Ford Museum. Via here.
On Saturday the fam and I took the afternoon to visit the exhibition, Discovering the Civil War, currently at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS). The exhibit runs through April 29, and is produced by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and the Foundation for the National Archives. It’s hard to do a compelling museum exhibition based almost entirely on documents and images; people want to see stuff, and that’s understandable. This particular exhibit succeeds pretty well, I think, in part because the documents they’ve included are genuinely compelling, and do a very good job of telling the story. The exhibition includes, for example, facsimiles of the 1861 Corwin Amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the original text of the 13th Amendment ending slavery in the United States, bearing the signatures of Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, Vice President and President of the Senate Hannibal Hamlin, and President Lincoln. (The original holograph copy of the Emancipation Proclamation will be on exhibit on February 16-21.)
One of the common complaints among Southron Heritage™ folks is that the limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation “isn’t taught in school” or “you never hear about that” or some such. So I almost laughed out loud when, not a minute after stepping into the first section of the exhibit, an HMNS guide stepped up to explain to us and others some of the featured documents in the show, and drawing very careful distinctions between the limited, wartime scope of the EP, and the permanent, legislative accomplishment of the 13th Amendment.
A curator at the Houston Museum of Natural Science points to entries in the Freedmen’s Bureau “Texas Record of Criminal Offences” from 1868. Photo: Mayra Beltran / © 2011 Houston Chronicle
The exhibit doesn’t only cover the war years; it goes back into the decades-long tensions over slavery and other sectional issues that led to the war, and devotes considerable space to the postwar period, including the creation of veterans’ groups like the GAR and UCV, reunions, monuments, and so on. It was in the area on the Reconstruction period that I came across a particularly chilling artifact, a big ledger in which the officers of the Freedmens’ Bureau in East Texas recorded assaults and murders of African Americans, attacks believed to be part of the terror campaign led by the Ku Klux Klan and allied groups to limit the new citizens’ participation in the electoral process and to intimidate anyone who challenged the pre-war power structure. The pages on display opened to 1868, the year such depredation came to a climax, in anticipation of that year’s general election. The the neatly-penned columns of names of the victims, alleged perpetrators, and nature of the crime — almost all listed simply as “homicide” — were deeply unsettling.
There is some hands-on material, including a section where visitors are asked to view an illustration from a wartime patent application, and then guess what the object is. The HMNS has also set up a kids’ discovery room, about halfway through, where young visitors can try on period costumes and work puzzles involved Civil War-era cryptography.
The museum has also appended a display at the end of the NARA exhibit, focusing on Texas during the war, with lots of arms and other artifacts from local units. These are, I believe, materials from the John L. Nau III, Civil War Collection. The recent recovery of artifacts from the wreck of the U.S.S. Westfield is discussed, as well.
Finally, there’s an extensive series of public presentations being given on different aspects of the conflict, including one on the recovery of the U.S.S. Westfield artifacts on March 27, and one by myself on March 27, “Patriots for Profit – The Blockade Runners of the Confederacy.” Hope to see y’all there.