Traveling Civil War exhibit sets up camp in Philly

Although the 4th of July weekend commemorates the Revolutionary War, Franklin Square in Philadelphia is marking a different conflict.

The Pennsylvania Civil War 150 Road Show arrived as a 53-foot tractor-trailer that folds out—double-wide—into 1,000 feet of exhibition space. Inside, four bays are crowded with audio, video, interactive screens, even 19th-century stereo-optics depicting scenes of the Civil War in vintage 3-D.

The portable museum is not meant to tell the whole story of the Blue and the Gray, just enough to spark interest in Pennsylvania’s war effort.

“There’s a video on the wall that directly addresses the issue of the physical contributions—lumber, industry, hospitals,” said project manager John Seitter. “And tells about the sacrifices. There was an explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal in Pittsburgh. Over 80 women are killed in a factory that was making cartridges for Union soldiers.”

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The museum on wheels was created by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission on the occasion of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. It will make at least one stop in each of the state’s 67 counties over the next four years. It will be in Philadelphia through Monday.

Bringing history to all corners

Its design allows it to pull into any small town and set up in a park or parking lot where the local historical society might not have the resources to launch a multi-media exhibition of its own.

“Most historical societies have a house museum, or maybe they are hosted by a library—they don’t have gallery space,” said Barbara Franco, director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. “To have something self-contained was a benefit. And the sophistication of the audio and video would be hard to reproduce in a lot of locations.”

The Road Show does have limitations—it can’t go everywhere the road goes.

“This thing only stays about 7 1/2 inches off the ground,” said Orville Lamaak, the driver. “It’s more like a NASCAR trailer. They’re real low. You have to be real careful of hills and drop-offs and stuff like that. You just can’t drive it over anything.”

There are no original artifacts inside the trailer. Travel is hard on historic objects, and although the interior is air-conditioned, it is not up to museum climate-control standards. All photos, documents, and clothing are re-creations.

There is one exception. Near the exit of the trailer is an empty glass case that can be temporarily filled with objects from the collection of a local historical society hosting the trailer. In Philadelphia, the Union League loaned a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

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