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Screen Shots

The American Civil War Museum opens its new Robins Theater with "A People's Contest."


When the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy consolidated in 2019 to become the American Civil War Museum, it left some unfinished business at its glass-enrobed building along the river at the historic Tredegar Ironworks.

On Friday, the museum finally opened its 1,128-square-foot theatre space, The Robins Theater, premiering a new immersive $2 million documentary titled "A People’s Contest: America’s Civil War & Emancipation."

It's the first film produced by the ACWM and reflects years of research, says Jeniffer Maloney, the museum's director of marketing and public relations, adding that the work places an emphasis on the effects of the war on ordinary people, including slaves. "While the leaders and battles of the Civil War are familiar to us, the outcomes were far from certain for the people who lived through it. This film tells the story of the costs and the consequences of the war."

Along with the movie, the screen, seating and sound system of the new 67-seat Robins Theater were designed by the same firm, the Kentucky-based Solid Light Inc., responsible for the dramatic layered presentations found throughout the ACWM, which also has locations at the White House of the Confederacy and in Appomattox.

The new auditorium was originally planned to open with the 29,000-square-foot Tredegar building, but construction costs and COVID got in the way. "The money for the theater was included in the umbrella of the capital campaign of $25 million for the entire museum," says Maloney. "But when supply chain issues became a problem, we held off on building the theatre."

The state-of-the-art Robins will serve as a program and lecture space but its primary function will be to screen the new 13-minute film, on a continuous loop, for museum ticket holders.

This film was made in order to present an understanding of the motivational causes, course, and consequences of the conflict, says Stephanie Arduini, director of the Edward L. Ayers Center for Civil War and Emancipation Studies, and deputy director of the museum.

"For a long time, our country has told its stories in terms of heroes and villains, but we know that life is more complicated than that. Our focus was to include that complexity, that humanity, because we've found that visitors seek that human connection."

Arduini says that the immersive film, featuring actor re-enactments, first-person quotes, archival photos and artifacts from the institution's formidable collection, is a compliment to the ACWM flagship exhibit, "A People’s Contest: Struggles for Nation & Freedom in Civil War America."

"In some ways, it was a blessing to have our flagship exhibit open first because we could see what questions our visitors were asking when they came out," she explains. "What were they most curious about? What did they want to know more about that we didn't have space for in the exhibit?"

Many of today's contemporary museums feature a similar type of orientation film, she admits (one example is at the recently-reopened Virginia Museum of History and Culture). But the in-house cinema isn't a bow to trends.

"Even before the consolidation of our two parent organizations, the American Civil War Center had been planning to build a film experience," she says. "We know that there are certain types of stories, and certain types of impacts in storytelling, that you can do in film that you can't always do in an exhibit. It helps to set people up for this larger experience."

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