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.