In a way, all museums are history museums. Even contemporary art museums show work that’s already been made, with exceptions for some installations or performance art.
Curators collect things and share them in a way that encourages us to extend our imaginations into the past in an effort to understand how what happened then led to what’s happening now.
It’s that connection of the past to the present that interests Chris Jordan, the man behind the exhibits at the New Winston Museum.
The current one, “The War at Home: Exploring Winston and Salem During the Civil War,” opened Oct. 19 and will run through June 28.
Jordan, the museum’s director of education and programming, immersed himself in months of scholarly research to plan and execute the exhibit. He wanted to find a new perspective on the war in Forsyth County and to explore areas that he feels have been insufficiently discussed.
“It seems that so often, great historical events, like the Civil War, are compressed and generalized into a master narrative, where the peculiarities of individual people and places are lost,” Jordan said. “By inserting approachable community stories into the broader Civil War context, we hope to engage visitors and promote interest in our community’s history.”
Because 2014 falls within the sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War, it seemed to Jordan like a good time to revisit and maybe find a new perspective on that part of Forsyth County’s history.
The exhibit presents the war from the point of view of the communities of Winston and Salem in an effort to detach the Civil War story from its traditional emphasis on battlefields, politics and military tactics.
No battles were fought here, and no railroads brought in troops or supplies, so the exhibit looks at the war through the eyes of everyday people. Jordan wanted to explore how such things as shortages, inflation and taxation affected them.
“The Civil War marks the beginning of Winston and Salem being these two separate, divergent, disparate places, and all of that makes it an interesting time.
“There’s been very little written about the Civil War locally,” Jordan said. “There’s a basic lack of discussion on the Civil War years.”
Jordan used such primary-source documents as letters, diaries and newspapers to get a sense of not only the events that occurred but also what people thought about what was occurring.
“The War at Home” is divided into three major topics: A Divided Community, The War Effort, Life and Legacies.
“What really was going on here?” Jordan asked. “It would be naïve to think that something so profound that was going on in the whole country wouldn’t affect what was happening here.”
The Divided Community looks at the different ways that rich and poor experienced the war, the way it was reported in the two newspapers of the day — The People’s Press and the Western Sentinel — and the way that different religious denominations diverged in opinion on the war.
There were even splits within the Moravian Church over the war, Jordan said. “This was also the manifestation of decades of struggle in the Moravian Church of the secular, capitalistic influences and the power of the clergy.”
The War Effort section looks at industrial production, especially textiles and wagons, which, ironically employed about 50 percent slave labor, Jordan said.
The Life and Legacy section explores the expectable hardships of war: hunger, shortages, death, disease, conscription and desertion.
“Money becomes worthless. Taxes become high,” Jordan said. “This is where we try to bring the war into the community that we know. The local community. … It recovered relatively quickly.”
The textile industry continued to grow after the war.
“The Frieses and the Belos build the railroad, and then there’s the boom of the tobacco industry. They made a lot of money off the war but reinvested it in the local community.”
P.H. Hanes and R.J. Reynolds, the best-known local patriarchs, didn’t come to Winston until after the railroad had been built, around 1872, Jordan said.
Katherine Foster is executive director of the New Winston Museum. “The interesting thing about P.H. Hanes is that he had a product that no one else had — plug tobacco,” she said. “R.J. had to have it.”
Reynolds bought Hanes’ company for $1 million, Jordan said.
Jordan finds a link between the proliferation of industry and successful black neighborhoods such as Happy Hills and Waughtown. “Industries like textiles and the wagon works employed skilled and semi-skilled workers. These are not farm hands,” he said.
Jordan’s main goal is to get people to think about history in a different way and not oversimplify it. The museum is doing a strong outreach to the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.
One major goal for the New Winston Museum is to help bring local history into K-12 humanities curricula. The museum has collaborated with third-grade students at the Arts Based Elementary School for a landmark-based art project and has hosted field trips from eighth-grade humanities classes.
“We’re very excited about our relationship with the school system,” Foster said.
“The end of our mission statement is education and collaboration,” Jordan said. “We want this to be a symbiotic relationship. We’re not protective or territorial. We want people to think about us beyond this building.”