Saturday, May 4, 2013

Experience Civil War Photography: From the Home Front to the Battlefront

Where: Smithsonian Castle

When: closing in July 213; no exact date set

I've often heard it said that Vietnam was the first televised war, that the war was brought into people's living rooms through television.  A similar phenomenon occurred during the Civil War: it was the first photographed war.  Photography brought the war and its horrors into people's parlors, both through family photographs taken of soldiers before they went to the front and through photographs taken of the war itself and the major actors in it.

3D photographs, called stereoviews, were very popular (just shows, everything old is new again eventually) - they reminded me of the Viewmaster Viewer I had as a child, which is not surprising, since it's the same technology.  Of course, while I was looking at scenes from fairy tales or cartoon characters, these stereoviews were of battlefields and generals.

The wet plate collodion process (familiar to me from my visit to the National Portrait Gallery's ambrotypes exhibit) allowed for reproduction of photographs, which broadened both their appeal and their audience.  Matthew Brady's photograph, "Dead of Antietam" was seen by many people, and it brought home the human cost of war in ways that no newspaper account could do.  I'm pretty sure this was part of the American Art Museum's "Civil War and American Art" show I saw a while ago.  I must say, if you're interested in the Civil War, there's a wealth of exhibits for you to see.  Truly, you're spoiled for choice.

The Smithsonian itself played a role in the Civil War.  The Castle was greatly damaged by fire (which I gather was not the result of the War, but did occur at this time), and suffered a loss of valuable objects.  Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, and his family actually lived in the Castle, in an eight-room apartment.  What a fantastic place to live!  I really wish the upper floors weren't closed to the public; I would love to look around and see the view from the top spire.

For the Henry family, it wasn't all about the lovely views; they took delivery of muskets and ammunition to defend the Institution (which was entirely contained in the Castle at that time).  Military recon was conducted on the roof of the Castle.  As I know from the Library of Congress exhibit on the Civil War, Washington was a hotbed of Southern sympathizers, so I can only imagine that life must have been a nervous business for the Castle's inhabitants.

Verdict: A small show, easily managed in an hour.  In fact, if you've not had a look at the cases with samples of items from each of the Smithsonian museums in the Commons, you can do both on the same trip.

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