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Harrisburg, Pa., museum took different path

March 23, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

About eight years ago, civic leaders in Harrisburg, Pa., set their sights on a grand Civil War-themed museum that would tell a comprehensive story of the War Between the States.

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Their vision, which bears a striking resemblance to a museum proposed for downtown Hagerstown, will become a reality later this year when the National Civil War Museum of Harrisburg opens its doors.

Harrisburg's mayor, Stephen R. Reed, conceived the plan and methodically pursued it, according to city and museum officials there. The path the museum took differs from the one Hagerstown museum backers plan to take.

Unlike the Hagerstown initiative, the Harrisburg museum had a large collection of artifacts and memorabilia before leaders began seeking funding sources for the $35 million complex.

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Unlike the Hagerstown initiative, the Harrisburg effort was able to secure funding from a city-state partnership that precluded the need for a large-scale private fund-raising effort.

And while the Harrisburg museum is seeking the same relationship with the Smithsonian Institution that the Hagerstown group is after, officials in the Pennsylvania capital say it is not vital to the museum's success.

"It is not crucial to us," said George E. Hicks, executive director of the museum.

City officials expect construction of the museum to be completed this summer, in time for the 135th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. From June 9 to June 11, about 10,000 re-enactors will highlight a weekend during which the public will get a sneak peek at the museum.

The grand opening is scheduled for Nov. 15.

Randy King, an aide to Mayor Reed, said Harrisburg is in the process of making job offers for curator, assistant curator and other museum positions.

King said the 12,000 objects that will be displayed at the museum have come mostly from private collections around the country.

"Most of it is stuff that's never been seen before," he said.

The museum will feature exhibits and information on the war itself and its major battles, the pre-war and post-war periods. In addition, it will focus on U.S. and Confederate soldiers, civilian life and slavery.

Unlike other museums devoted to the war, Hicks said the Harrisburg museum will have a more comprehensive scope.

"We will be the only museum in the country that will deal with the immediate pre-war years and immediate post-war years," Hicks said. "I understand there are others that want to imitate it."

The Harrisburg museum is a formidable competitor for affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution, said Dennis E. Frye, a member of the organization that is pushing the Hagerstown effort.

The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., also is seeking inclusion in the Smithsonian's Affiliations Program, Frye said.

That is why the nonprofit Antietam Creek Coalition is lobbying so hard to have planning money included in the state budget, Frye said. Without the $450,000 this year, another museum will get affiliation first, Frye said.

"We'd be so far behind the others that it would be a waste of time and money," he said. "It would demolish fund-raising and marketing."

As for the museum itself, Frye laid out a vision that sounds much like plans for the Harrisburg facility.

"Our concentration is not just on the Civil War. We're building a museum that is going to place the war in context," he said. "It will be the best. It will tell the whole story. And it will tell the story better than any other museum."

Although they have similar visions, the museum proposals differ in an important way: The Harrisburg museum owns its collection, while the Hagerstown museum would rely on borrowed items.

Hicks said the Harrisburg museum has enough objects, in fact, that it could rotate them every six months for the next three years and never have to use the same item twice.

"I don't know of anyone else out there that has a collection that compares," he said.

Frye said the Antietam Creek Coalition does not have the millions of dollars it would take to acquire a first-rate collection.

Instead, he said it will concentrate on presentation and interpretation of the Smithsonian's exhibits. Frye said the museum also would seek loans from historical societies, local museums and private collections to keep exhibits fresh.

Hicks said Harrisburg officials decided from the beginning that it was better to build their own collection.

"We're very fortunate. We have the funding in place," he said. "Mayor Reed had the vision He laid his foundation first."

Objects on short-term loan bring increased costs and headaches in terms of insurance, security and shipping, he said. Many organizations also demand that museums not charge admission to the exhibits, he added.

"Most museums frown on loans because it's fraught with difficulties," he said. "Most museums start or evolve from a collection."

Hicks said he is proud of the museum in Harrisburg. But he said it will by no means have the final say on the topic.

Noting that 2 million people served in the war, which lasted four years, Hicks said there is room for other museums.

"Museums complement each other. They do not compete," he said. "There is more than enough story to go around One museum can't do it all."

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