During the last decade Pamplin Historical Park and The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, a privately-owned history campus south of Richmond, has earned the reputation as public history's most innovative and "high tech" Civil War education complex.
From the use of interactive computers and audio programs to the participatory and immersive Civil War Adventure Camp, Pamplin Historical Park has changed the standard for the way Civil War history is presented to the public.
Although the role of history museums in the 21st century seems to be expanding well beyond traditional missions and methods, preserving objects and using them to teach remain at the heart of why institutions like ours exist.
The shaking ground of our "Trial By Fire" exhibit, the blasts of our artillery demonstrations, or the "promotions" visitors earn by playing our interactive history quizzes should not obscure the fact that Pamplin Historical Park displays more than 1,100 original artifacts in our four museums and three historic buildings.
Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr., the visionary behind the park that bears his name, is himself a devoted collector "" of Western Americana and Chinese art in addition to Civil War military objects. Dr. Pamplin has committed substantial time and resources to develop Pamplin Historical Park's collection.
His most recent acquisition is the Gladstone African American Civil War Collection, widely considered the premier private collection of its kind in the world.
Bill Gladstone spent a lifetime accumulating images, documents and three-dimensional objects associated with the black experience in the Civil War. He built his unique collection one item at a time during an era when interest in African American Civil War history paled by comparison to today.
A self-described "simple wood carver," Bill Gladstone parleyed a tenacious devotion to his hobby with sharp business sense to create a remarkable collection that could never be duplicated in the modern marketplace.
Bill had been a frequent visitor to Pamplin Historical Park and admired the way Dr. Pamplin had gone about creating a campus that presented the common soldier of the Civil War on his own terms. He also wanted to preserve his unique collection intact (eschewing the opportunity to maximize its sales price), and transfer it to an institution that would to tell the African American soldier's story in an honest and comprehensive fashion.
Where others might have seen merely profit, Bill Gladstone saw an opportunity and obligation to enlighten.
Bill and I had worked together on the acquisition of his remarkable photograph collection several years ago (that's another story) and we had developed a good rapport based on a shared appreciation for what he had accomplished.
After several telephone calls and exchanges of correspondence, I traveled to Florida in February 2005 to examine his artifacts in detail. What I found were nearly 1,500 photographs, paper documents, pieces of art and objects that together told an incredible story of the participation of African Americans in the Civil War.
Clearly, Bill's collection deserved a home where it could be shared with others and preserved in perpetuity.
As such things go, negotiations on the terms of the purchase went quickly. Bill transferred his collection well below appraised value "" the only way our Foundation budget could have afforded to buy it.
Following 72 hours of intense inventory review and careful packing, Bill and I loaded up the minivan and drove non-stop from West Palm Beach to Petersburg, where we transferred the collection to our secured storage.
Our Curator of Collections, Randy Klemm, spent several days with Bill reviewing all the objects and learning details not readily discernible from Bill's careful record-keeping. Randy then devoted several months to cataloguing and photographing each object and image and integrating them into the Park's master records.
In the meantime, Andy Talkov, Pamplin Historical Park's Director of Education & Interpretation, and Paul Fritz, the Park's Exhibits Coordinator, began brainstorming how we could best share the Gladstone Collection with the public.
Completion of the Park's new Education Center in October 2005 freed a large space in our Battlefield Center that had been devoted to classroom use and made it available as a temporary exhibits gallery. Ideas roared around the conference room.
As a result of this collaborative work by the Park's professional staff, we plan to open a new exhibit on June 24 centered around the Gladstone Collection.
"Many Thousands Go:African Americans and the Civil War" will display about 10 percent of the Gladstone Collection along with objects borrowed from a number of colleague institutions.
Our friends at The Museum of the Confederacy, The Kansas Historical Society, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, The Mariners' Museum, The National Civil War Museum, The Hampton Museum and Frederick Douglass National Historic Site have all contributed to a show that we think should be on every Civil War student's "must-see" list this year. Pamplin Historical Park members will be invited to an exhibition preview and reception on June 16.
The exhibit will trace the involvement of African Americans from the sectional crisis through their introduction into the armed forces and finally to the meaning of the Civil War in the context of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. We will devote attention to the relationship of blacks to both the Union and Confederate armies and the Federal navy.
Those who have toured Pamplin Historical Park know that we present the people and issues of the 19th century in their context, not ours, unburdened by contemporary political agendas. Visitors expecting a predictable approach to this topic may be surprised.
Even though the exhibit is designed to be temporary (it will run through early 2007), "Many Thousands Go" will not be devoid of Pamplin Historical Park's usual sizzle.
Guests will have a chance, for example, to test their knowledge of history using interactive computers and watch clips of the feature film "Glory" while comparing the movie's depiction of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry with historical reality.
Companion programming throughout the year will highlight aspects of African American participation in the Civil War as well.
"Many Thousands Go" will be but the first of a series of changing exhibits created by Pamplin Historical Park during the ramp-up to the Civil War Sesquicentennial. We plan to do a show on the Civil War and the West in 2007, employing some of Dr. Pamplin's incredible collection of Custer and other Western artifacts, to be followed by a display of Civil War photographs from our collection of more than 1,500 unique CDVs.
We invite readers of Civil War News to make plans to visit us later this year to view what the work of Bill Gladstone, Bob Pamplin, and the dedicated professionals at Pamplin Historical Park have made possible.
Will Greene is the Executive Director of Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. The University of Virginia Press will publish his new book on Petersburg, Virginia, during the Civil War in October. For information about the park go to www.pamplinpark.org.