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Letters Home: Holidays and the Civil War

by: Marky Gray

If you've spent time recently on the second floor of the Welcome Center, you've noticed the debut of our latest exhibit, Letters Home: Holidays and the Civil War. It tells a touching story of families who were separated by the Civil War during Christmas time. The exhibit first came about when our Exhibits team became inspired by an illustration that appeared in Harper's Weekly by artist Thomas Nast which capture the feeling of families separated by war during that time. They also wanted to create an exhibit that complemented the current play being performed in Lilly Theater, Tales at the Holidays: Letters from the Civil War.

Letters Home

As the name states, the exhibit overall focuses on the letters of several soldiers and their families during the Civil War. Allison Cosbey, Exhibit Developer, spent a lot of time examining and transcribing the letters featured in the exhibit as well as researching various holiday traditions and decorations during that time period. The Collections team also then took that information to pull multiple objects and clothing that best related to the story from our museum collection.

"This exhibit is exciting because it allows us to display items that the visiting public rarely gets a chance to see. Not to be missed are the Wrapper (dress), rifle and writing desk in the display case at the end of the exhibit," said Jesse Kramer, Director of Exhibits.

Jesse also shared his favorite parts of the Letters Home exhibit.

"My favorite section of the exhibit is the "Separated by War" part. This portion showcases the Harper's Weekly spread that inspired the exhibit. Here our visitors get the chance to view two original Harper's Weekly newspapers from the 1860s which help us further connect people to the story we are telling. A few other parts of this exhibit that I particularly enjoy are some of the physical elements. We were able to create the wooden wall panels from some of the trees that we lost in the Allisonville Road construction project. The windows were also pulled from the Chinese House on the South end of our property. Since the Chinese House was owned by our founder Eli Lilly whose grandfather, Colonel Eli Lilly, fought in the Civil War we were happy to be able to make that addition to the exhibit. Finally, I was very happy that we were able to enlist the help of our incredibly talented interpretive staff to do dramatic readings of the letters for our guests to listen along to. This adds a depth to the exhibit that we are very happy with."

Jesse shares that he feels guests are intended to leave the Letters Home exhibit feeling a connection to the struggles that the families during the time of the Civil War faced.

"When you read and listen to these letters you realize that while we may be separated from the writers by a century and a half, their hopes and dreams, joys and concerns were very similar to our daily thoughts and concerns as well. This exhibit brings these people back to life in a sense. You leave feeling like you've gotten to know them. It's a very personal and intimate experience in that way."

The Letters Home: Holidays and the Civil War exhibit will be on display until January 6, 2018.