Museum of Alabama

By on 14 April, 2014 in Fun, Government, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

“If you know your history, then you will know where you are coming from.” — Bob Marley, “Buffalo Soldier

It’s especially validating when something lives up to the hype. It feels like you’ve gotten good advice, the reviews can be trusted, the thing is as good as advertised. I had no particular reason to be skeptical about the Alabama Archives unveiling a new Museum of Alabama, other than a general suspicion that the Alabama Legislature would somehow under-fund the thing. Maybe as an amateur lover of learning about my state’s history, I felt sure that they’d leave something out — that unhappy chapters of Alabama’s story would be intentionally omitted.

Then, reviews started coming in from folks who had visited after the museum opened in February. “It’s good. It’s really, really good,” a friend told me.

The hype is correct. This museum is great and is immediately at the front of the line of places that you’d suggest to a visitor to Montgomery. It’s comprehensive, interesting, informative and fun. It’s also enormous and there’s no admission fee. The new museum is one of the best places for both sparking and enriching a lifelong love of history.

Before the new exhibit at the Archives, there wasn’t a lot on display. Sure, there were some items, but nothing like the immersive walkthrough now available. You begin on the second floor of the Archives (624 Washington Ave.) and will want to be sure to stop in the two rooms on your left before being drawn towards the illuminated “Alabama Voices” exhibit at the end of the hall. Note: This hallway currently has an attractive set of color drawings of Native American chiefs on one side and haunting photographs of World War I veterans lining the other. Before you even enter the exhibit, take a moment to compare the portrait of Pushmataha to the tortured start of Leon McGavock of the 312th machine gun battalion, hero of the Meuse-Argonne.

The first room is devoted to the earliest parts of Alabama history — the parts before humans were here. It’s a set of displays about the land of Alabama. The second room is about the first humans in Alabama — native people who had developed some basic tools and some pottery-making skills. There’s nothing thrilling about arrowheads, really, but it’s important to get a sense of the folks (and how little we know about them) that may have encountered the mastodon (whose skeleton is on display).

After the background information, you’ll make your way to the full exhibit, which commences with an overview of the native people that eventually settled in this area and began building a complex society. As you veer to your left to begin walking through the exhibit, you’ll see a life-sized canoe and a series of well-lit and attractive display cases and information panels about Indian life in (what would later become) Alabama.

The first section is titled “1700-1819: This Land is Our Land.” A nicely rendered map shows the artificial nature of the boundaries that we currently consider our state’s borders. To the original people that lived here, things were substantially more fluid. We now call these people Muscogee, which was sort of an umbrella term for a group (a confederacy, really) that grew to include groups called “Alabama” and “Yuchi,” which we today commonly call “Creek.” I’m only standing at the first informational plaque, and already I’ve learned something.

The exhibits are a nice mix of interactive displays and eye-catching dioramas. Near a reproduction of a bubbling cauldron, children are encouraged to turn a wheel to learn about what Indians ate. The emphasis is on big picture concepts instead of actual traditional museum displays of “artifacts.” For example, where an array of pipes and bowls are on display, the point is just to show that there were a wide variety of pipes and bowls in Creek culture, not to actually label said items and tell the viewer where they were discovered, their age, etc.

Not all of the exhibits function perfectly. As the Indian story becomes one about arrival of white people (and their slaves), there’s a part of an exhibit designed for the viewer to lift up a piece of wood to reveal additional text. Maybe it’s because the subject matter is about slavery (inhumanity is always difficult to explain to children), but the moving mechanism designed to be lifted is well out of reach of any children that might be wanting to learn more.

Although at times I found myself wanting more information, overall the museum strikes an excellent balance between artifacts and gimmicks. But the emphasis is clearly on large concepts. A display of bottles and bricks unearthed from early settlements is in a dark corner and poorly lit. Spotlights shine brightly on rifle pieces displayed above drawings of early muskets.

Worried that your kids won’t be interested by ancient scraps and text-heavy displays? There are also interesting movies. I was glad that the multi-media portions were motion activated, so that solitude and quiet are possible when absorbing some of the heavier bits of Alabama’s story. But when you’re ready for a movie, you can walk over and take in a televisual display. The first film is about Fort Toulouse, a key mechanism for buying off Indians who might otherwise kill the invading force.

The film is good, but I wish it did more to encourage museum visitors to actually visit the site of Fort Toulouse, which isn’t very far away at all. It’s hard to explain the importance of the Treaty of New York (and its breach), but it’s easier when the Ken Burns-inspired movie can connect viewers to a physical location. It’s easy to imagine kids squirming on the lovely (but unpadded) pine benches during Menewa‘s moving speech.

We can learn a lot from the hybrid identities of William McIntosh, genre-bending interdisciplinary ideas that have profound implications for today’s globalizing world. We have a duty to keep the name of Alexander McGillivray alive, even as I would have liked to see more emphasis by the museum on William Weatherford.

More also could have been done to convey the horrors of Horseshoe Bend, an ultimate act of genocide that happened just a few miles from our city. A nightmarish betrayal and massacre is somewhat glossed when described as a “battle” merely leading to the Treaty of Fort Jackson. The humiliating and brutal nature of the final defeat of the Red Sticks is pulled nicely by the museum into a good treatment of Indian removal, highlighted by an actual garter and ear jewelry worn by Osceola during this epically sad time in our state’s history.

The museum also doesn’t flinch when it comes to telling the story of African-Americans and slavery. One of Daniel Pratt’s cotton gins is on display (on loan from the City of Prattville), but the audio recordings of actual slaves constitute the best windows into the human cost of Alabama’s formative years.

By the time the museum hit the Civil War, I was already running out of time. A wax arm displayed the effects of smallpox. I had to hustle by the cases of illuminated guns and swords. I could only briefly glance at a display of one of my favorite Civil War stories, Emma Sansom’s role in Streight’s buffoonish raid.

Checking my watch, I had to dash through reconstruction and James Rapier. An actual carpetbag was on display, as was the first of several KKK hats. I was surprised to learn that the first incarnation of Klan headgear was a red knit cap, something like Santa Claus or a hipster might wear today.

Another section was titled “1871-1929: Mills, Mines and Mules.” By this point, I was really skipping things that I wanted to stop and read. It was an era of Klan terrorism and industrialization. World War II veterans had recorded stories that we can hear. A cool touch screen offers information on the origins of the Civil Rights Movement. Things get even more vague as we approach the present, as they always do in history museums. There’s a Bo Jackson jersey, a television, a computer monitor. Alabama got a car plant. Some Korean people moved here. Write down your thoughts about the museum on a Post-It note and leave it for others to read.

I’ve got to go back and consume the second half of the museum with more detail. The story of Alabama may just be too long to consume properly in a single visit. You’ll certainly want more than an hour to take it all in.

Ultimately, the museum is a fantastic addition to the growing list of “Things to Do in Montgomery.” If you’re a native Alabamian, you’ll be proud of the work done by the Alabama Archives to tell our story. If you’re not, you’ll learn a lot, some of which will surprise you. Either way, this Museum of Alabama is a real treasure and now a permanent part of our ever-evolving narrative about our state.

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