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The Civil War Returns

The new national museum at Historic Tredegar presents a balanced look at the Civil War and elevates a historic downtown site.

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Although Richmond is accused of still fighting the war, there was no single place that offered a comprehensive and balanced (if that is possible) picture of the complex and bloody conflict that pitted brother against brother from 1861to 1865. That changed last month with the opening of The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.

Of course, the emotional and political conflict raged beyond the war's four years, and it still resonates today. Consider the issues of race, symbolism and collective memory that permeate our community. Sen. George Allen's personal display of Confederate flags and declaration of Confederate History and Heritage Month were campaign issues in his recent campaign. Similarly, questions regarding political and financial support for the Museum and White House of the Confederacy, Richmond's oldest museum and one of its most popular attractions, will be key to the survival of that beleaguered institution.

So it is both timely and ironic that with the goal of presenting a balanced account of the war, the American Civil War Center has opened a $13.6 million facility downtown on a prominent, visually spectacular 8.3-acre waterfront site.

The center is an elegant complement to its next-door neighbor, the National Battlefield Park - Civil War Visitor Center, operated by the National Park Service. The latter center provides a solid overview of Richmond's role in the war and an orientation to Richmond-area Civil War sites and battlefields. The new amenity should make Tredegar Street an even more popular destination. Already, the James River Park, with its pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle, and the Canal Walk along Brown's Island attract hundreds of people daily.

The cleanup and preparation of the Tredegar site took place a decade ago under the leadership of Ethyl Corp., with the goal of housing the Valentine Riverside.

That project was ill-fated, but the new museum seems to be in the right place at the right time and, importantly, espousing the right message. Richmond should embrace its Civil War heritage wholeheartedly and intelligently. American cities that have the rare privilege of having streets and places where "walls could talk" must ensure that the voices of those sites are heard in effective ways. The American Civil War Center accomplishes this.

The overall tranquil feel of the reception and exhibition spaces can be attributed to the good bones of the original gun foundry (a muscular brick structure that was built in 1861 and serves as the center's core), its excellent adaptive reuse and the sensitively handled contemporary entrance pavilion.

The old foundry building provides texture and context, while the entrance pavilion animates the space considerably while not overwhelming it. The architecture firm 3North designed the simple shedlike pavilion building. A projection runs along the rooftop, and its clerestory windows allow daylight.

In both the old and new sections, window openings allow daylight to provide an aesthetic connect between the interiors and the breathtakingly beautiful natural and built cityscape just outside along the river.

A visit to the new center reveals that strong academic, architectural and communicative leadership is behind the development and operation of the center. The design of the physical plant and the opening exhibition reflect clear thinking and a savvy understanding of what museum-goers need and want. There is a near-perfect balance between the 150 artifacts on display and the multilayered, narrative script that pulls the visitor through the presentation.

A team of historians and designers led by Princeton University historian James McPherson has created an experience akin to walking through the pages of a clearly written textbook or a Civil War Web site. One can almost imagine a planning meeting: "Make it simpler, more concise, the museum-going public has a short attention span."

Although a tremendous amount of verbiage is offered in the inaugural, 10,000-square-foot exhibition, "In the Cause of Liberty," the visitor can pick or choose what information to examine and what to bypass.

Inside the cavernous foundry structure where the feature exhibit is presented, a second mezzanine level has been inserted. Visitors move through the first floor counter-clockwise. When visitors are two-thirds along, they may ascend the wooden staircase (or take a conveniently placed elevator) to the upper level, where the exhibition continues.

The exhibition has been designed with plenty of places to sit. Sounds from various audio-visual presentations waft throughout the spaces and add to the calming atmosphere.

But what makes the experience so solid is that the curators are very specific about what they are trying to do. It is clearly established from the outset that they will examine the war from three points of view: Northern, Southern and African-American. The North was seeking political union; the South was looking to protect its homeland; and African-Americans were seeking freedom.

A short introductory film featuring three actors — each friendly and accessible — presents a respective point of view. They present the issues without advocating a position.

The artifacts are displayed in dimly lit cases. More than 30 institutions and individuals from around the country have loaned 150 objects for the display. These include the Virginia Historical Society and the Museum and White House of the Confederacy.

The overall effect of "In the Cause of Liberty" is first-rate and achingly balanced.

The only off-note is the commercial route through a good-sized gift shop that visitors must follow as they enter and leave the center. Unfortunately it's rare to enter a museum through a more noble space, such as through the great rotunda of the National Gallery of Art or the Science Museum of Virginia.

The American Civil War Center is so intelligently done, its recycling of historic structures so sensitive, and its curatorial message so concise and clearly presented, the whole experience only emphasizes the importance of maintaining and enhancing the Museum of the Confederacy's presence in Court End. After an orientation to the Civil War years at this museum at Tredegar, visitors to Richmond are able to actually experience the streets, sidewalks and buildings in Court End where the likes of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and even Abraham Lincoln toiled over the politics and battles of the Civil War.S

The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, 490 Tredgar St. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day). 780-1865. www.tredegar.org.

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