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NPS exhibits to get update

When the National Park Service exhibits at Chancellorsville were new, John F. Kennedy was president of the United States and Sandy Koufax had just won Major League Baseball’s Cy Young Award.

Fifty years later, they’re overdue for refreshing.

That’s the thought behind a major project underway at the battlefield’s visitor center, where a platoon of curators, historians and technicians recently waged an all-out, two-day campaign to carefully remove dozens of Civil War artifacts from their display cases and gently place them in climate-controlled storage.

Between now and next May, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and its contractors will create and install displays reflecting current research and scholarship.

During the same period, the park plans a similar overhaul of exhibits at its Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.

“After most of a lifetime, 50 years, it’s time to take these spaces and put them to a little higher use, to use more modern media that tells a bigger story and recognizes the Civil War’s impact on people of every stripe—every color, every economic status, North and South,” John Hennessy, the park’s chief historian, said in an interview. “We’re going to begin to tell their stories as part of this.”

If visitors to the Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg centers have looked closely, they could tell that most of their displays date from the early 1960s, just by noting their color scheme, typography and graphic style.

Chancellorsville Visitor Center was built in 1963 as part of the Mission 66 Project to improve park sites in time for the service’s 50th birthday in 1966. Fredericksburg’s exhibits were installed the year before.

Chancellorsville’s original furnishings included hip orange-and-yellow couches and Space Age planters that could have been from the set of “The Jetsons.”

Hennessy and his colleagues are eager to pull the exhibits out of that time warp and anchor them in the 21st century.

“Most of the visitors to the park don’t get a [ranger-led] tour, Hennessy said. “They rely on our films, media, exhibits. So now, finally, our exhibits will be where all our live programs are, in terms of their scholarship, breadth and vividness.”


As the $1.6 million project progresses this winter, the park will try to keep both buildings open, he said. Three months and $300,000 worth of structural work must be done at Chancellorsville first, starting later this month. By February, the center should be ready for workers to to begin installing the new exhibits.

Fredericksburg will be on a similar, overlapping track, with demolition in January and installation in May. Its overhaul will happen room by room, with park staff doing most of the work, Hennessy said.

At Chancellorsville, some exhibits that are visitor favorites will be retained. An exhibit case with the military uniforms and personal objects of two soldiers, Union and Confederate, who fought in the battle will stay, but gain a new perch. And some 200 portraits of men, women and children affected by the battle, donated recently by their modern descendants and hung on a wall of the center’s long, U-shaped gallery, will be moved into a quiet alcove to be carved out of the old theater, which will shrink.

The revamped “Faces of War” exhibit will have as its backdrop a wall bearing the names of the 16,000 people who were killed, missing or wounded in the fighting at Chancellorsville. This area—with those names, faces and a few quotations displayed under subdued lighting—will occupy the middle of the visitor center.

The contemplative, commemorative space is intended to be an area where people think and ask questions about the nature of the Civil War and its terrible sacrifices, Hennessy said.

“There are two things that we’re after,” he said. “Why this all matters to the nation and to this community. And to focus very much on the human experience of war. We’re trying to personalize this event that was on a scale beyond our comprehension.”

Beth Parnicza, the historian who manages the Chancellorsville center, said she’s excited by the prospects for inspiration and education the new exhibits will offer, especially the center gallery.

“You can go through most of the exhibits and see [the war] as sanitized battles. But once you step in there, it’ll be people. How people change war, how people are changed by war, how many people died for their causes—and to realize that they aren’t just numbers. They gave up their lives, their potential, their futures,” she said. “If nothing else, what would you like to say to these people?”


The painstaking process of taking down the 1963 exhibits’ artifacts revealed a few secrets, from the crude but effective way that minié balls and a cartridge box plate were affixed to an exhibit case’s rear wall to the identity of the soldier who carried a weatherproof, Model 1853 knapsack. 

When curators opened it up, they found that William S. Moser of the 9th New York Infantry had written his name and unit inside in two places and stenciled it in a third. Clearly, he didn’t want to risk losing that piece of his gear.

“We were likely the first people to see the soldier’s efforts to identify the pack as his since it had been hung in the exhibit 50 years ago,” said Eric Mink, the park’s cultural resources historian.

Frank A. O’Reilly, an older historian who has devoted his life to the park, sounded a bit nostalgic about seeing the old exhibits go.

“I’ve loved the dioramas since I was a small child and could barely peek into them,” said O’Reilly, author of the best-known tactical study on the Battle of Fredericksburg.

“Growing up, I spent all my summer vacations on battlefields during family trips or long ‘guy weekends’ with my dad; this was one of our first bonding places. I never imagined that what was an avocation would become my vocation.”


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Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029