The Presence of the Past

Civil War: Living History on American Street

Ice Box at Crane Arts

April 12, 2014

by Gerard Brown


Art historian Svetlana Alpers’s essay “The Museum as a Way of Seeing” should be on the required reading list of everyone who cares about display. She describes visiting the natural science museum as a little girl and being mesmerized by a giant crab. “How is that made?” she marveled.

The point, of course, is that it wasn’t made—it grew. The crab was a specimen, not a work of art. But the experience of encountering it in a museum shaped the questions that the budding art historian felt could be asked about the object she was looking at. The construction of display formed a lens through which the object could be seen, and which also limits the view of information deemed ‘peripheral’ to that experience.

I thought of Svetlana Alpers on April 12, 2014, as I strolled among the tables of breech-loading rifles, authentic and reproduction uniforms and insignia, and other objects at the Ice Box, where I was looking at Civil War: Living History on American Street with a few dozen other people.

The afternoon felt like a performance artist’s dream come true. Here were costumed storytellers and supporting cast of soldiers; here were guns (lots of guns); here were giant video projections of Gettysburg and the sound of wind—just wind—roaring over a nice sound system. A couple of tents, a scattering of straw, and a few hay bales in the dimly lit cavern of the Ice Box tastefully provided a tastefully minimal mise–en-scène for the screening of photographer Rebekah Flake’s film about the Mason-Dixon Line and historical interpreter Joe Becton’s living history presentation on the life of Robert Smalls.

In full disclosure, I have been to my fair share of Civil War-related living history events (as evidenced by the effort I am making to avoid using the word ‘re-enactor’). I have stood in the sweltering Virginia sun not far from Bull Run, grateful that it’s not me in that wool get up, looking across the vacant fields, trying (largely unsuccessfully) to imagine the mayhem of battle. But this felt different.

It felt different because on that lovely Philadelphia afternoon, I was utterly unable to escape the frame of reference that comes with seeing art and the habits of viewing that attend to it. It didn’t help that I was running into sculptors, painters, and photographers I know from that art-world context as I tried to absorb the fairly dense literature on tables manned by folks from the Philadelphia-based 3rd US Colored Infantry, the 15th New Jersey Volunteers Infantry Co., and the Hampton Legion–Confederate States of America team of The North-South Skirmish Association to name a few.

One habit of viewing typical to art exhibits is an enhanced sensitivity to the way information is presented. How had I been able to ignore the cacophony of typography that is the hallmark of public history for so long? Nostalgic recruiting letterpress posters emblazoned with wood type jostle for attention with the most grievous abuses of clip art and computer-generated type. Art installations tend to discourage reading in general, replacing the idea of writing with the blandly clinical use of ‘text’, while in history exhibits the words that are there are meant to be read—they’re not some kind of textured wallpaper that declares authority, they’re the curatorial soul of an exhibit.

This was sharply demonstrated in a display about New Jersey’s complicated relationship to the Union cause. The state’s economic dependence on Southern agricultural products, its political conservatism, and its uneasy relationship with the Lincoln agenda were deftly summarized in what looked more like the kind of poster session one runs into at an academic conference than what one would see at an art exhibit. In a few short paragraphs (illustrated by images of Civil War-era New Jersey citizens who’d been dragged into the conflict in various ways) visitors were quickly disabused of the simplicity of the ‘war between the states’ model and introduced to the idea of conflicts within states and the competing agendas among allies that few who’ve not done research on the subject would know.

Which brings us to the second habit of viewing that art exhibits encourages—criticality. Of the many things the Civil War accomplished, one of the least appreciated is the rapid advance in military technology. In four short years, we went from breech-loading rifles and combat conducted with sabers to repeating rifles and sharpshooters delivering death from previously unimaginable distances. A display of rifles on a table communicates this poorly. I’d seen more than a few of these before and they tend to strike me as ritual still lifes of the American gun culture. But being in an art-viewing frame of mind, I pressed for connections.

Artists like to believe that images and artifacts can tell stories, but that’s half true at best; the escalation of killing power brought on by the Civil War is a good example. Without a text that laid out the sequence of innovation in American rifle making, without the interpreter who showed me how the loading mechanism had been modified over time to accelerate (and eventually automate) loading, without the transactional nature of living history events where information is disseminated and reiterated through numerous channels including writing, images, artifacts, actions, and interaction, it’s unlikely that I would have appreciated the significance of the arrangement of weapons on display.

Like works of art—and unlike crabs—wars are made. They are fought when competing ideologies can no longer tolerate one another and one side forces the other to resort to violence. The Civil War is not the same sort of fact as a zoological specimen; it begs for interpretation like a work of art or literature. We don’t preserve the Civil War; we hash it out because, in many ways, it created modern American society. This isn’t a project for art. This isn’t a project for history. It’s a project for both disciplines.


Gerard Brown paints, writes about art, and organizes exhibits. His writing appeared in Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (John Hopkins University Press, 2011), he recently curated the exhibit “R/W: Reading and Writing Visual Culture” at the Hicks Art Center at Bucks County Community College, and his paintings will be exhibited in a show at Abington Art Center in summer 2014. He is an Assistant Professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, where he is Chairperson of the Foundation Department.