Home Front: The Curator’s View

June 22, 2011

-By Penny Cherubino

This visitor was intently focused on one of the displays at “Home Front: Boston and the Civil War,” at the Boston Public Library. The exhibition reveals the war’s tremendous impact on the city and its citizens through the stories of ten notable, local residents.

Excitement danced in Beth Prindle’s eyes as she moved from display to display, chatting about the exhibition, “Home Front: Boston and the Civil War,”_ at the Boston Public BPL) in Copley Square.

Prindle is Manager of Exhibitions & Outreach for the BPL. As curator of Home Front she gathered objects from the library_s collections to tell the stories of ten Bostonians, men and women, who played a role in the Civil War. It’s about them and, “It’s about their words,” Prindle said. Inspirational quotes from each of the ten hang above the Johnson Lobby.

She hopes people will see the relevance to today. “There is a universal quality of humanity,” she said. “They were normal people of that time who chose to do some pretty extraordinary things.”

A New Hero

Prindle became a fan of Thomas Wentworth Higginson as she unfolded his story. “If I could pick one person, I think he really inspired me,” she said.

Higginson was an abolitionist who led the first federally authorized African-American regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. “He led that brigade and he was intensely impressed not only with their dedication, but with their talent, and with their soldierly qualities,” she said.

Upon his return, he wrote Army Life in a Black Regiment. Prindle described this as more than a military history. “There are some things that are captured in Army Life that are not captured anywhere else in terms of the dialect that was used by those slaves.” Higginson even included the spirituals the men sang around the campfire.

“He was incredibly involved in women’s rights,” Prindle said. In 1896 Higginson presented Galatea, a major collection focusing on women authors, to the BPL. “It was not collected by a woman,” she emphasized. “It was collected by him.”

Using Technology

This is the second time Prindle has incorporated digital elements into an exhibition. She explained that the digital experience allows them to, “… show a bunch more from our collections. In particular prints, or drawings…”

In addition to the 50 objects on display, she used two to three minute video segments to augment, spotlight, and interconnect the elements of the Civil War exhibits. “What I’m then hoping is that people will go and look at the actual artifact with a new understanding.”

More to Come

The BPL staff began creating Home Front about ten months ago, and their work continues. _”We have installed five screens,” she said. “We will be installing two more within the next couple of months.” They will also be making all the material from the project available online.

Prindle’s work doesn’t end when an installation is in place. “It’s really interesting to watch how people interact with material. I like to spend a lot of time in the space… just watching where people are lingering, what’s capturing their attention.”

She uses her observations to plan future exhibitions. Her goal is always to help the library_s thirty-thousand weekly visitors gain a better understanding of the subjects presented and an appreciation for the library’s collections.

Four Exhibitions and More

Home Front, sponsored by the Associates of the Boston Public Library, is one of four exhibitions showcasing the BPL’s Civil War holdings.

“Torn in Two: The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War,” focuses on 50 historic maps interwoven with other objects from the collections. “Photo by Brady” presents the work of celebrated 19th century photographer Mathew Brady. And, “Winslow Homer’s Illustrations” highlights prints by the renowned artist.

Additional _programming and events will be held at all BPL locations. Details can be found at www.bpl.org/civilwar.

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