Rendering courtesy American Civil War Museum
Construction of the new American Civil War Museum, projected to open in the summer of 2018, is set to begin this month.
Formed in 2013 by the merger of the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, the new museum will incorporate what is widely regarded as the nation’s most extensive compendium of Confederate artifacts.
As of early February, officials were on the verge of selling the Museum of the Confederacy property on Clay Street, with proceeds going toward construction of the new museum. The White House of the Confederacy, the iconic mansion alongside the museum, is not part of the sale and will remain open. The Museum of the Confederacy will close only when its collection can be securely transferred.
Nearly everything has changed about the new museum, including its design and placement, since the first architectural renderings were released in 2014. Baskervill, the original architect on the project, envisioned a riverside museum of about 40,000 square feet.
“It was a beautiful building,” says Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum, which paid about $1 million for the original design. But she says a consensus emerged that the size of the proposed building would overshadow the historic properties on the site. Another factor was that the New Market Corp., which owns the property, agreed to allow encroachment for construction on the hillside behind Historic Tredegar.
The design that has emerged from discussions with the new architects, Richmond-based 3North, is smaller at 28,000 square feet, but more costly at $13.5 million, compared with the $11 million for the original design.
Coleman explains that additional site work, and a rise in the cost of building materials such as steel and concrete, added to the overall cost. But moving the structure back toward the hillside also took it out of a flood plain, which had become a concern. She says gallery and collections spaces were preserved in the downsizing, but that administrative offices were squeezed out and will move elsewhere. Part of the new museum building will be underground as a result of its relocation.
Visitors to the new museum will find trench-like structures built into the floor with tattered uniforms, abandoned weapons, shoes and personal effects, such as lockets, that were found on battlefields.
The museum also will recreate a cave in which visitors will experience the deprivation many civilians endured as they sought shelter and food, having to eat rats and dogs to survive.
“That experience is a remarkable one,” Coleman says.
The museum’s opening is about 15 months behind schedule, and she acknowledges that the delays have caused some tension and frustration.
“I do recognize, especially among some of the donors who came in really early, that they’re ready ... to see this thing happen,” she says.
If there has been any silver lining to the delay, Coleman says it has given the staff time to take a breath and reinvent the museum experience.
“Part of this reinvention has been our 'history happy hours' where we take the varying subjects that often are not talked about relative to the war and we take it to local bars and we have a nice little old time,” she says. Her own contribution, performed at the Capital Ale House downtown as well as more traditional locations, is “Love, Sex and Consequences, an Intimate History of the Civil War.”
Coleman is no stranger to living history presentations. In one of her previous jobs, she was director of African-American interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg. One of her prominent roles was portraying a pregnant slave who was sold away from her husband, which drew big crowds.
According to Coleman, a new generation of museum goers is asking questions about the Civil War and that has led to different ways of talking about the conflict.
“I’ve mentioned theater several times,” she says. “That creates connections to stories that resonate very differently in a far more emotional level for the non-Civil War buff.”
Coleman adds that for the past year or so, the staff of the Civil War Museum have been working with the local arts community to develop additional programming. At the White House of the Confederacy, for example, there are interactive evening tours in which guests meet and hear stories of people who lived in the mansion during and after the Civil War.
“Yes, we still talk about battles, we still talk about icons, but it goes beyond that … far beyond,” says Coleman.