Beginning at the End

Written by: Diego Borgsdorf

Last week, I started my summer internship in Museum Services at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, located in central Virginia. To many, Appomattox is a name at the tip of the tongue, remembered from history classes as the place where the American Civil War ended. It was with this vague recollection that I started what has turned out to be an incredibly informative and immersive orientation here at APCO.

From the moment I began applying to this position, I realized that Appomattox’s memorialization as the space where “the nation reunited” is a simplification of history. First, this notion is not the most historically accurate–while Robert E. Lee famously surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia–the most significant Confederate Army–here in Appomattox at the McLean House, skirmishes continued for months after the surrender in April 1865. Many Civil War scholars argue that the war didn’t officially end until the rebelling states were readmitted to the Union. In that sense, Appomattox represents the beginning of the end, rather than the terminus of a disparate era in American history. Second, and in my opinion, more significantly, Appomattox represents much more than Lee’s surrender to Grant. Increasingly memorialized and interpreted at the Park are the myriad imbrications of Appomattox in the larger American histories of enslavement, emancipation, and post-war reconstruction. Appomattox is an American limen: an in-between space where new political and social realities appeared on the horizon.

The room in the Clover Hill Tavern at APCO where thousands of parole passes ensuring a legal and safe return home for Confederate soldiers were printed. Taken from “behind the glass” during housekeeping.

As you can imagine, interpreting these histories is a challenging task masterfully accepted by the incredible staff at APCO. This summer, my role in this work is assisting the Museum Services staff in making sure that the artifacts, archival documents, and other material items important to telling the histories that converge at Appomattox survive their age and into the future. Over the past few weeks, in addition to being oriented to the Park itself, I have learned so much about caring for these museum items. I’ve had the opportunity to learn about the agents of deterioration museum staff work against, the strategies of item labeling, and even got to assist staff on collecting and analyzing IPM data! 

Dusting architectural features in the Clover Hill Tavern!

Before the past two weeks, my understanding of museums was on a very large-scale, thematic level, but I didn’t know much about the daily work that went into museum management. Now, however, I’ve had the opportunity to understand the museum as a practice–and I am so thankful for this experience. I never imagined that cleaning exhibit spaces would make me feel as fulfilled as I do. My job, through its on-the-ground nature, allows me to preserve these valuable histories.

Moving from my hometown–Los Angeles, California–to rural Virginia has brought me a wealth of new experiences. Beyond the skills I’m learning through my internship or the new histories I’m learning, it’s this sense of fulfillment and purpose that means the most for me. The past two weeks have allowed me to begin so much more than a summer gig. Being at Appomattox allows me to see a meaningful future on the horizon.

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