Museum brings Civil War history to life

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Carol Sorgen

Unless you’re an expert on Maryland’s Civil War history, you might not know anything about Christopher Fleetwood. But you should. This free black man of Baltimore led other black soldiers into battle and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1864 for his bravery.

Other Marylanders, such as Clara Barton and Harriet Tubman, also played significant roles in the Civil War. Now, you can meet them all at the Maryland Historical Society, where these heroes and heroines (and more infamous notables, such as John Wilkes Booth) have come to life through the newly formed Maryland Historical Society Players.

This six-actor troupe, under the co-direction of Harriet Lynn and Dale Jones, perform every weekend at the Historical Society Museum, in conjunction with the museum’s exhibit, “Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War.”

The exhibit is Maryland’s largest and most comprehensive about the Civil War, occupying more than 5,000 square feet. It effectively relates the impact of the war on the people of Maryland in personal terms.

The exhibit tells the story of the war in three “acts” — the romantic war, the real war, and the long reunion.

The romantic war covers the first year or so of the conflict, when both sides saw the war as an adventure and patriotic duty. The real war, over the next three years of bloodshed, left hundreds of thousands of young men dead. And the long reunion focuses on the reunification of the country, which some say is not still complete.

Maryland and the war

Maryland sent 60,000 men to serve in the Union Army. More than 20,000 more served in the Confederacy.

The human stories of these men and women are told by bringing letters to life with contemporary technology, such as 3-D videos and interactive exhibits.

In addition, hundreds of rare objects are displayed, many of them for the first time since the 19th century. These include Robert E. Lee’s camp chair, John Brown’s carbine, Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, and compelling photographs of the period.

But it is the Maryland Historical Society Players who add a new dimension to the exhibit. Museum Director Burt Kummerow was the impetus behind the establishment of the Players.

“In my experience in museum work, I’ve found that live interpretation brings artifacts and objects to life and enhances the museum experience for visitors,” he said.

To implement his vision, Kummerow contacted Dale Jones, a resident of Glenwood, Md., who is well-versed in museum theater, having previously developed interpretive programs for Baltimore’s former City Life Museums.

Jones currently has his own company, Making History Connections, through which he consults with museums and historic sites across the country in their efforts to create personal connections that are meaningful and engaging.

“Museum theater allows audiences to connect emotionally and intellectually to the objects they are seeing,” said Jones. “It’s a way to bring the human element to history.”

Co-director Harriet Lynn agrees. Lynn has been involved in museum theater for more than 15 years, working with organizations such as the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

After a recent performance at the Historical Society, a member of the audience wrote that she had been moved to tears. “If you can accomplish that in just 15 minutes, you know you’re making an impact,” said Lynn.

In character

Currently on the Players’ schedule are original presentations on Christopher Fleetwood, Harriet Tubman, John Wilkes Booth, and the Pratt Street Riots. An interpretation of Clara Barton will join the rotation in September.

Through these vignettes, which are followed by a 30-minute tour of the exhibit led by the actors, visitors experience, for example, the first bloodshed of the Civil War. That took place in Baltimore just one week after the conflict began, as Federal troops attempting to move through the city were attacked by a mob of Confederate supporters.

Audiences also learn about (and from) Harriet Tubman, who led more than 300 people to freedom via the Underground Railroad before the war even started. During the war, Tubman became a spy for the Union and led a military raid on Confederate forces in South Carolina.

And then there is John Wilkes Booth. Listen to him explain why he assassinated President Lincoln just days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. And Christopher Fleetwood talks about the efforts that earned him this country’s highest honor.

Appearing in Pratt Street Riots and soon as Clara Barton, Britt Olsen-Ecker sees first-hand the impact the live vignettes have on the museum’s visitors.

No matter the age of the audience member, Olsen-Ecker has found that museum-goers are responding well to seeing history made real, rather than moving through a static exhibit reading plaques on a wall. “Information is conveyed a lot better through live acting,” said the Charles Village resident.

The Civil War exhibit will run for the next four years with annual updates. The Historical Society museum also houses major exhibits of famous Maryland paintings, silver, furniture, maritime history and children’s toys from the last 300 years. 

It is located at 201 W. Monument Street. On Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., the Maryland Historical Society Players perform short vignettes of major events that took place in Maryland during the Civil War.

Museum admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for those ages 3-18, and free for children under 3. The museum is free to all on the first Thursday of each month.

For more information, including general hours and tour times,  go to www.mdhs.org or call (410) 685-3750.