When an exhibit becomes an artifact: the remarkable Hanover Street diorama, perhaps the oldest exhibit in the NPS

From John Hennessy:

We have ruminated in this space about the evolution of media, and especially digital media. Still, despite all the techno developments and all the creative energies put into media development, I firmly believe that nothing is more effective as an interpretive tool than a the human voice. The combination of the voice of a thoughtful, creative interpreter, an evocative site, the words of the people who once trod that site, and the mind’s eye of the listener still make for the most memorable, enduring interpretive experiences.

But, as we have written here, at a typical landscape-oriented park like a battlefield, about 80% of our visitors do NOT take a tour, and thus are completely reliant on media for according significance to the sites and landscapes they see. That’s a staggering number, and it emphasizes that for an NPS site to be successful, we have to excel at both personal services (tours) and media.

Which brings us back to the question, “what works?”  Sometimes in our search for evocative, effective media, it pays not to look forward into the swirl of emerging digital media, but backwards to something more simple.

Of the dozens of exhibits in the park–museum exhibits, wayside exhibits, and even digital exhibits–in my view still the most effective and evocative is the oldest exhibit we have: the Hanover Street diorama on display at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. It dates to the creation of the visitor center in the 1930s, and has been used and re-used in various forms ever since. There may be an older exhibit in the NPS (the incredible dioramas at Mesa Verde may have ours beat), but there are few that generate more comments from visitors than this one.

The detail is painstaking. Given what I know about the cost of creating detailed dioramas today, it’s likely that you could build one of the houses as in the view as livable space for what it would cost to create the diorama at the same level of detail.

The diorama is derived from the famous photograph showing some of Peter Goolrick’s ruined rental properties at the junction of Hanover and George Streets. The detail is amazing, down to addresses being written on the envelopes strewn in the street.

The purpose of the diorama is to people the landscape in the image, to give it color, to allow people see it in dimension.

We have two other dioramas in the park dating to the Centennial–one of Jackson’s wounding, and one of the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania. But the two newer dioramas lack the detail and realism of the Fredericksburg piece.

The park is now in the process of planning and designing new exhibits for the Fredericksburg Visitor Center. The only component of the old exhibit that we are in unanimous agreement goes forward with the new is the Hanover Street diorama.  It may be repackaged a bit, but I expect in 50 years, when the bicentennial of the Civil War rolls around, it will be there still, and rightly so.

One thought on “When an exhibit becomes an artifact: the remarkable Hanover Street diorama, perhaps the oldest exhibit in the NPS

  1. I have always been appreciative of visual presentation. As a child growing up in the 1960’s I was very taken by this diorama, both via a postcard sold at the park and as a pint-sized visitor pressing my face against the glass, trying to take in all the details. There was a period around 1969 when I was constructing houses of thin gray cardboard to replicate this display, having my father assist by scorching “damaged” areas with a propane torch. I used flat toothpicks to mimic exposed lath, and built small furniture to add to the wreckage in the street. I was totally absorbed in the details. Needless to say, I still gravitate to this diorama any time I walk in the FVC.
    Probably the only equal in excitement was derived from the artifact tableau photographed by Arnold Newman in Joseph Cullen’s “Where A Hundred Thousand Fell”.
    Even though I was living some 50 miles to the north in Fairfax, the F&SNMP had a grip on me that has not let go.
    Thank you all for voting in favor of keeping the diorama. It would be a sad thing to see it go away. It is an old friend.

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