by Jennifer Thomas
It is funny how little time we have as museum professionals to actually visit museums! That’s why Christina and I were so grateful to be able to take a day out of the VAM office earlier this week and make our way to two member museums to see how they are doing.
Our first stop was the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville. The museum is housed in a 1938 African American high school, one that was distressingly overcrowded the day that the entire student body went on strike in 1951 and began their trek toward being among the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education. The school is an emotional space in its own right, but the new permanent exhibition (designed by VAM business member StudioAmmons, Inc.) brings the amazing story of these students to life in such an evocative way. I loved how the exhibition incorporated the original blackboards and classroom elements to help tell the story:
Our second stop of the day was the Museum of the Confederacy in Appomattox. Opened just last year, the building in Appomattox was designed to better showcase some of the key artifacts from the Museum’s collection that relate to the final battles of the Civil War and Lee’s surrender. The exhibit space, here, too, was very well done, with signature artifacts complemented by both low-tech interactive elements and high tech touch screens. I was impressed at the care that was taken to make this history personal—all of the uniforms on display were tied to a specific person, whose photo and story were shown as well. The museum isn’t about the battles of the war, but instead about the emotion and strategy that existed in the days immediately leading to the surrender, and what happened to the citizens and soldiers of the former Confederacy after the war. The design and installation here were also done by VAM business members (Riggs Ward Design, and Explus, Inc.).
This graphic illustrated the migrations of former soldiers and slaves that happened after the end of the war.
Though it never occurred to me that visits to these two disparate sites could complement each other, that is in the end exactly what happened. Both exhibitions focused so much on the voices of the main figures involved that you could hear the same language repeated across generations. The words of the white segregationists who fought Brown v. Board of Education eerily echoed those of the Confederate politicians and soldiers from the Civil War. Both spoke passionately of states’ rights, and freedom, and the potential damage to their way of life. Both also brought to mind some of the statements made by Tea Party politicians today. If two short museum visits can enlighten someone who has been in the history field for over 15 years, imagine what they could do for the general public!