Taking the Civil War on the Road in Pennsylvania for the Sesquicentennial

Strategy: Collaborate in New Ways, Enhance Your Product, Leverage Anniversaries, Take Advantage of Tech

Type of attraction: Historical Society, Museum/Historic Site

Summary: A state-of-the-art traveling exhibit will visit all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties in the next four years to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

A state-of-the-art traveling exhibit will visit all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties in the next four years to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  Exhibits are housed in an expandable 53’ tractor-trailer filled with interactive exhibits as part of the Pennsylvania Civil War 150 Road Show.  The project began in 2007 when four statewide organizations ( Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission,  Pennsylvania Heritage Society,  Senator John Heinz History Center and  Historical Society of Pennsylvania) came together to create Pennsylvania Civil War 150 with the mobile exhibit as a major component of that initiative.

Thanks to funding from a 2010 IMLS grant Pennsylvania Civil War 150 will focus on the exhibit as a tool to engage new audiences, raise the visibility of smaller historic sites and contribute to their long-term sustainability. The outside of the tractor-trailer also serves as a moving billboard for the Road Show with historical photos and the organization’s website.  Pennsylvania Civil War 150’s project manager John Seitter estimates that halfway into the first year of the Road Show, this mobile advertisement has already been seen by an estimated 750,000 people as the exhibit travels from location to location. 

The sides of the tractor-trailer expand to create a 53’ x 24’ exhibit space (roughly 1,000 square feet). Every inch of space is packed with activities and information about four thematic areas: why Pennsylvania soldiers enlisted in the Civil War; life on the Pennsylvania home front during the Civil War; Pennsylvania African Americans in the Civil War; and how surviving Civil War veterans from Pennsylvania memorialized the Civil War after it was over.  Seitter explains: “We wanted to focus on Pennsylvania’s Civil War stories, and specifically on those stories that aren’t already told at other Pennsylvania Civil War sites to complement, not compete, with what we already offer in Pennsylvania.” 

Exhibits include video, audio and touch/feel components in each of the “arcade” areas in the tractor-trailer as well as additional live programming outside the traveling exhibit in each Road Show location.  Local hosts provide a parking area for the tractor-trailer as well as four volunteers each day.  Interactive elements include touch screens where visitors can have a digital self-portrait taken for the cover of their own online Civil War scrapbook.  Within a few days, participants receive an email giving them access to create their personalized scrapbook, and scrapbooks are posted on the Pennsylvania Civil War 150 website as a legacy of the program.  There is also a “Tell Your Own Story” area where visitors can record a 90 second audio visual interview.  To help customize the Road Show for each location, there is a locked exhibit case that local historical societies can use to showcase their own local artifacts and stories.

Seitter observes: “The exhibit has been a tremendous draw that attracts visitors from age 9 to age 90.  In just two days, we had 2,500 people tour the exhibit in Scranton.   Some people had to wait for over an hour to get in, and they still gave us very positive responses.  I’d estimate that most people stay in the exhibit for about 25 minutes, and we’ve even had visitors come back two and three times to see it again.”

The goal is to use the Road Show as a catalyst to get people to visit other Pennsylvania Civil War sites, read about the Civil War, have discussions and think about the impacts of this important event in American history.  Seitter works with local host organizations to help them leverage the Road Show as an opportunity to build support and awareness of their Civil War sites.  For example, funds are available through Pennsylvania Civil War 150 for local sites to use for events and programming.   Seitter has also worked with local hosts on joint membership promotion, such as one offered as part of the Scranton Road Show.  The three-day Road Show in Scranton resulted in 28 new six-month joint membership packages that included both the Pennsylvania Heritage Society and the Everhart Museum.   In Gettysburg, Seitter worked with The Historic Fairfield Inn and Restaurant and Gettysburg National Military Park to donate a vacation package raffled off during the Road Show.   While there was no fee to enter, raffle contestants provided their name, address and email resulting in 800 new email contacts in 2½ days. 

Seitter observes: “The timing of the Road Show is helping Pennsylvania’s Civil War sites cope with the economic downturn.  Although many of the traditional funding sources for these sites are either gone or greatly diminished, the Road Show is providing an opportunity to try out a new model to raise the profile of these sites and engage a whole new generation—and it’s working.”

For more information, go to www.PACivilWar150.com.