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Torn in Two


I recently visited the Torn in Two exhibit at the Boston Public Library. Using maps at the primary storyteller, this exhibit told the story of the Civil War. Running until the end of the year, I highly recommend it for anyone visiting Boston. Maps are usually used as supplementary material in exhibits rather than as prime storytellers, but this exhibit really suggested the power of these documents. It was most effective demonstrating the differences between North and South in the antebellum period. Seeing a map of Louisiana cotton plantations next to a map of the mills in Lowell suggests both the interconnectedness of the two regions and how they were so very different at the same time. The section on the war itself features a variety of maps, ranging from somewhat fanciful topographical maps produced to help people at home understand the conflict to battlefield maps (which never interest me) to hand-drawn maps from diaries and letters, which are fascinating documents. The exhibit kind of tails off at the end, not really showing how maps helped us understand the end of the war. It’s also quite Boston-centric. This is natural enough, but also slightly limiting. Still, a fine exhibit overall.

In the newer part of the library, there’s a separate exhibit on Bostonians during the war which is also a good way to spend 20 minutes. Consisting of a few artifacts and some video kiosks explaining these various people, it provides good biographies of a variety of interesting people. Although the exhibit is awfully white (they couldn’t have included a soldier from the 54th Massachusetts?), it is more than half women, which is a nice reminder that the Civil War was much more than a conflict of men killing each other.

Good stuff.

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  • sleepyirv

    Maybe you can get into history without loving maps but I can’t imagine being as an enjoyable.

  • Hogan

    Running until the end of the year, I highly recommend it for anyone visiting Boston.

    Wow, are you going to be tired.

    (Yeah, yeah, nobody likes a grammar scold.)

    I love me some maps, and I’m going to try to find a way to get to Boston this month.

    • Ian Osmond

      No, no, he’s right. I live in Boston, and you ABSOLUTELY don’t want to drive here, and you REALLY need your endurance. Training like that is the only way to survive.

  • Jim Lynch

    I’m surprised to hear you say battlefield maps don’t interest you. I’ve toured Virginia’s CW battlefields twice. The first time, while I knew of them by name, my grasp of troop movements was vague (to say the least). By the second visit, I had utilized Steele’s West Point Atlas in studying them (in conjunction with Footes trilogy, among other works), and my appreciation of the fields was exponentially greater.

    • The battles are the least interesting part of the Civil War to me. I just don’t care. I care about the deaths and the technology and some of the personal stories. But the strategies and the military maneuvers and the generals are things that don’t move me.

      • Jim Lynch

        The battles don’t move you? Have you never stood at the spot where Lee positioned himself to watch Pickett’s charge unfold? Or conversely, at the angle beneath the copse where it was met?

        Sounds to me like you’d probably make a great drone “pilot”.

        • I almost stepped on a copperhead at Shiloh. That’s about as excited as I’ve ever gotten.

          • Halloween Jack

            I haven’t been to many CW sites, but I have been to Shiloh, and that’s what really struck me about the reality of battlefield combat: how relatively modest in size the different fields of combat were, relative to my imagination, which put everything on this epic, Lord of the Rings-type scale. It really is something to stand in the sunken lane adjoining the modest field known as the Hornet’s Nest and imagining fifty cannon pointing at you from the other side, or the Bloody Pond, or the peach orchard, or… well, you get my gist, I think.

  • jon

    It’s a very good exhibit. The most interesting of the maps, for me, was the one that showed the substantial shifts in immigration from Europe before, during and after the Civil War.

    Then you should go upstairs and check out the rest of the recent restoration of the library and its artwork.

  • very nice blog thenks admin.

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