Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Opening the Front Door to the Past

Front doors. I'm a big fan of going in the front door. It probably stems from growing up in a house where people always entered through the side door.

So here's the big news: the Virginia Historical Society is reopening their front door. Grand buildings require grand entrances and after ten years of entering through the back of this grand building, visitors will once again be welcomed from the Boulevard entrance.

I, for one, will never again enter through the back, much the way I am a convert to the VMFA's reopened Boulevard entrance. I think it's exciting to know that visitors can once again enter these places the way they were intended to welcome the public.

And much the way the Picasso show is going to draw people from all over, the new exhibit at the VHS is sure to do the same.

American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia is a blockbuster of a show of over 3,000 square feet and featuring objects, art and audio-visual displays that are like nothing seen at the VHS before.

At this morning's preview, which had that great "new exhibit" smell, there were still some unfinished pieces, but the overall impact of the show was terribly impressive and in a non-traditional way.

This is not an exhibit focusing just on battles; the civilian experience is explored in depth as is the back story of waging the war.

A three-sided mural shows a holographic image of a battle while the speaker overhead provides the sound of horses, gun shots, and screaming. It's harrowing to stand inside this area and hear the chaos and terror of battle. I felt totally in another place and time, but couldn't linger long because it was so unsettling.

It made me understand how soldiers could say that they had no clear memories of battle; the assault on the senses and overwhelming nature of it all would probably be impossible to process at the time.

Equally realistic was a display of a medical procedure going on inside a tent. Silhouetted by a light from inside, you watch as medical personnel perform surgery, peeling back layers of skin, muscle and ligaments and eventually sewing the man back up. It's a look at an important part of the war effort, but conveyed in a more visceral way than a picture could ever do.

After having driven by Hanger Prosthetics on Belvidere hundreds of times, I was fascinated to learn the story behind the company and the exhibit delivered that.

I'd always thought it was a terrible name, not realizing that the company was named after James Hanger, the first amputee of the war; heartbreakingly, Hanger had only been a soldier for a day when it happened.

While recovering, the 18-year old designed and made an improved prosthetic leg with a hinged knee and foot.

Naturally, other soldiers clamored for the same and a company was born that survives today, with a facility five blocks from my house. Now I know.

There are more than 200 objects in this exhibit and not all of them were yet in place today, but I would be planning to go back and see the exhibit again even if they had been.

The emphasis on everybody involved in the war, not just the men, not just the Confederates and not just the soldiers, makes it a well-rounded look at our country's most tragic period.

It's a must-see. And that front door is a must-enter. It's an impressive combination.


  1. Yeah - this is why I love your blog - I would have passed on this exhibit but now I have to go, especially now that we don't have to trudge to the back door. Thanks!!

  2. What a terrific compliment! Thank you.

    The exhibit opens Friday and runs through the end of the year. I think you'll be as impressed as I was.

  3. We are looking forward to it, thanks to your nudge. As your commenter said, you motivate others to explore our culture more fully, more enthusiastically, and that's something those trolls never seem to get. Your influence must drive them absolutely crazy!

  4. Pleased and proud to be a nudge.