Design of The New American Civil War Museum Brings the Complex Conflict to Life

A “typical” Civil War Museum may primarily focus on third-person information about battles, with very little about the non-soldier’s life, usually even less about African Americans during the conflict. Artifacts may be presented with little context. Photographs often show people frozen forever in stiff black and white; they appear to have little in common with you and me.

By contrast, the new American Civil War Museum connects with today’s visitors by transforming the narrative and challenging broad myths about the war. Solid Light tapped into personal narratives from period-written accounts to tell the story of the Civil War in a new, powerful way that deepens understanding.

“Solid Light designs and builds destinations where people connect with stories and each other,” said Cynthia Torp, Solid Light’s founder, owner, and president. “With the American Civil War Museum, we wanted to help visitors emotionally connect with the people who lived and died during the Civil War.”

“We began by creating ‘emotional mapping’ of the Museum—intentional story planning for visitors to have the maximum experience without being overwhelmed,” Torp said.

Solid Light’s unconventional storytelling methods present the complex issues of the Civil War in a compelling new way for modern audiences. The company’s design intertwines the wartime narratives of real soldiers, civilians, and African Americans, both enslaved and free, to create intimate moments of personal connection within the epic sweep of the war. This first-person storytelling allows the sharing of multiple perspectives about the conflict and highlights the complex choices made by individuals.

A vibrant color palette and bold graphics, including colorizing period photographs, make the Civil War visually relevant today. “The humanity of the people jumps out at you,” Torp said. “Instead of a faded image in a history book, you realize you’re looking into the eyes of a person with hopes, fears, and dreams, just like you.”

These personal narratives continue in multimedia pieces, with performances by vocal actors, evocative period images, reenactments, sound effects, and music. These come alive in unusual “theaters” such as a “house” frozen in mid-explosion during the Battle of First Manassas and a “cave” for the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. These “theaters” and the multimedia elements underwent extensive prototyping and testing.

Likewise, interactive, touch-screen timeline pillars allow visitors to delve deeper into key Civil War events, the personalities involved, even related artifacts in the American Civil War Museum’s collection.

Throughout the Museum, artifacts are presented with stories about them for greater emotional impact. Outside, signs with bold graphics and interpretive copy, also by Solid Light, guide visitors through the ruins of historic Tredegar Iron Works, which supplied munitions to the Confederate States of America.

“Collaborating on this project helped Solid Light understand the Civil War in new ways,” said Torp. “We’re confident the American Civil War Museum will have that same impact on visitors.”

Read the article in Smithsonian Magazine.

Read the article in the Washington Post.