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Civil War Exhibit Raise Ghosts and Humanity

By Sean Telles


By Sean Telles

San Marino, Ca – Two new, temporary exhibits focusing on the Civil War have opened at the Huntington Library. One presentation focuses on the Huntington’s extensive, rarely seen, photograph collection and the other its historical documents. The artifacts alone are worthy of investigation, but the interesting layout of each collection adds dimension, history, and humanity to a subject often taught in black and white.

When you enter the photography exhibit towards the back of the garden, the first thing that strikes you is the modern feel of the design. The larger rooms are broken into smaller sections by semi-transparent, ceiling-high screens that hold images of the civil war. The size of the panels offer new details into the old photos, yet the translucence of the material they are printed on give the observer the feeling of a ghost. Combine this feeling with a modern-day piece of music commissioned for the exhibit playing in the background, and you immediately realize this isn’t your everyday Civil War exhibit experience.

In addition to the overall feel of the environment, the individual pieces are stunning. War photography was at its infancy during this time period and the expense of the process meant only the extremely wealthy were able to collect and view what is now on display – even newspapers, due to technological gaps, could only print woodcut versions of these photographs.  One item not to be missed is what is sometimes called Lincoln’s “death warrant,” which is a hand-signed note excusing the President’s regular body guard from his duties that night at Ford’s Theater.

The second temporary display of the Huntington Civil War collection is on display in a smaller room closer to the entrance. What it loses in space, it makes up for in content. A person could spend hours reading the over a hundred letters, posters, and other late 19th century items, which by design, take a modern-day viewer into an America divided beyond anything it has ever known.  Starting with the passionate build-up to the war, to the complicated battles themselves – complete with plain clothes guerrilla warriors, to the final outcome for the battle of how the 13th amendment should be worded (citizenship or not for all African Americans), this exhibition will teach everyone something through first-hand, extremely rare, artifacts.

There is one stunning visual present in both exhibits. As the majority of casualties in the war were left on the battlefield, it became the job of mostly Afro-Americans after the war to bury skeletal remains. In a war that began in order to maintain the Union and morphed into a fight for freedom, this photograph speaks to the horrors of one of the most tragic times in our history that left no one and everyone free from horrible pain.

The Civil War collection at the Huntington Library is one of the largest and best in the world. Now, it’s your pleasure to enjoy this wealth in a way few ever will. As these are temporary exhibits and you’ll probably want to go at least twice, get there quickly. Curator of Photography, Jennifer Watts and Curator of American Historical Manuscripts, Olga Tsapina both deserve acclaim and thanks for designing realms to see the past in unique and helpful ways.

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