Out on Exhibit
Written by: Diego Borgsdorf
This week was a momentous week at APCO! Following a year-long closure of the Park’s Visitor Center due to social distancing measures brought on by the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Park was able to re-open the building to visitors on Friday. With the closure, the staff at the Park had the opportunity to update many of the exhibit spaces in the Visitor Center. Leading up to the opening, I had the amazing opportunity to help out my supervisor, the Museum Curator, in setting up a new exhibit.
The exhibit now on display highlights pieces of a telegraph found near Lee’s Headquarters in Appomattox. Found along Route 24, the origin of these artifacts is a lush, forested area remembered as the last headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia. The objects on display, consisting of pieces of a camelback style telegraph key and parts of a telegraph relay, which was used to amplify telegraph signals, could have been the last telegraph pieces used by this Army. They were then likely discarded by operators at this spot.
Being a part of the process of putting these objects on exhibit for the public was such an eye-opening experience. Seeing the creativity and precision of the Museum Curator in designing this space revealed to me the true power of showing an object to the community. Each museum object accessible and highlighted in the exhibit space serves a purpose and tells a story. In the case of the telegraph, its purpose is not just to show off an object integral to the process of surrender at Appomattox in 1865, but rather, to materialize and remember the ways that agencies communicated in the time period. The physical remnants of these technologies and channels of communication reveals who had the power of mass communication, and we can begin to imagine how these conditions shaped public discourse.
The fact that these telegraph pieces lay in the dirt, able to be discovered, marks an important moment for the end of the Civil War. Gone, laying discarded, was the means by which an army sent out mass communication. In that sense, the soiled appearance of the metal on these telegraph pieces tells a story within itself: rather than remaining pristine, the excavated nature of this exhibit reveals the detritus of defeat.
Choosing objects for display is such a meaningful task. It requires an immense skill in protecting and preserving the objects for longevity, and simultaneously challenges curators to tell new stories with the stuff of who we are. Learning about this process first-hand was such a great experience, and I am so excited to see what the public will learn from these objects!
Learn more about the American Conservation Experience.