The little museum that could
After nearly three years as a Union soldier, Dickerson had been through several battles, but the most disturbing thing he’d seen during the Civil War was a skeleton hanging from a tree, he wrote in a letter to relatives during the Atlanta Campaign. There was Confederate money in the dead man’s pockets. Whether he had hanged himself or someone had done it for him, Dickerson wrote, no one knew.
After reading the passage chosen at random, Charles “Chuck” Hill, new curator of the Grand Army of the Republic Museum on South Seventh Street, closes a manila folder stuffed with Dickerson’s letters and smiles slightly, almost in wonderment.
“I just happened to pick that out,” says Hill, who only days ago put Dickerson’s dispatches into chronological order. “There’s no telling what else is in there.”
Barely a week into his new job, Hill is making plans for a museum that’s been closed since August. The National Woman’s Relief Corps, which owns and operates the museum, hopes to reopen the building in April. And when doors again open to the public, the museum will, the corps hopes, be a much different place, one that tells stories and presents artifacts in scholarly ways as opposed to a warehouse filled with cool things thrown willy-nilly into display cases.
Anticipating a more professional approach, Kathy Bower, secretary for the National Woman’s Relief Corps, has purchased 10 or so hygrometers to keep tabs on humidity levels in display cases filled with documents, books, swords, rifles, medals, buttons and other relics. There is a fresh supply of white gloves to handle delicate documents and objects. Bower says that she hopes that the museum can become a place where University of Illinois students can come for internships.
“In the past, it’s always been run by a caretaker,” Bower says. “I would like to see it become exactly what it’s doing now. We’ve got a curator, and a teaching place. Not to diminish previous caretakers – they’ve been stellar in what they’ve done – but let’s face it. Every year, we learn more about proper ways of curation. What we thought was OK to laminate, we can’t do that anymore, and Scotch tape is not that good.”
A collection worth seeing
That the museum, which opened in 1962, contains fascinating historical objects and documents is undeniable. Just ask James Cornelius, president of the Elijah Iles House Foundation that takes care of the nearby Iles House.
“Speaking as a volunteer at the Iles House across the street, we and everybody should be pleased that another historic and nationally recognized museum here in Springfield can keep going,” says Cornelius, who holds a day job as curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. “They have a collection worth seeing.”
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it building is, perhaps, Springfield’s best-kept historic secret.
“People do come here to see it,” Cornelius says. “I have, literally, been stopped at or near that corner by out-of-towners who were looking for it.”
Cornelius doesn’t recall exactly when he first stepped into the museum, but he remembers being impressed. Comparisons to an attic, he says, aren’t quite accurate.
“Maybe a little more like a basement,” he suggests. “It was fascinating, but highly cluttered and dusty. That problem was addressed, though, about a year ago. It was cleaned up, and the exhibits were much improved.”
For one thing, Cornelius notes, an American flag that was once proudly billed as having been on display in Ford’s Theater, complete with a tear said to have come from John Wilkes Booth’s spur as he fled after assassinating Abraham Lincoln, is no longer promoted as the absolute real deal. The proof, Cornelius says charitably, was “not very strong.”
The first order of business, Hill says, is to inventory the museum’s belongings and establish provenance. Where did this come from, who gave it to us, when did we get it and how do we know that it’s real? Already, Hill has matched a photograph of a Civil War veteran that was in one display case to a canteen and documents that were in another. As for Dickerson, Hill hopes to find a photograph of the soldier who saw the skeleton. Given that Dickerson returned to Illinois after the war, became a constable and lived until 1926 – the new curator has already figured this much out – there must be a picture of him somewhere, which would help bring his letters to life.
“The thing about places like this is, they tell real people’s stories,” Hill says.
Display cases stuffed with stuff need to be de-cluttered and re-organized. In fact, new display cases to make objects more visible would be nice. Storage space is at a premium. Hill is buying surplus filing cabinets from the state of Illinois. Nineteenth century documents put in plastic sleeves that appear to have come from Staples or Walgreens need to be put in acid-free archival sleeves. Artifacts must be researched and put into proper context.
“What appears to have taken place in the past was, they put an item in (a display case) because it looked good, or it was interesting, and it is interesting,” Hill says. “But what is it?”
There’s also the matter of coherently accomplishing the museum’s threefold mission: Telling the stories of the Civil War, of the Grand Army of the Republic, a defunct organization of Civil War veterans who have long since passed on, and of the National Woman’s Relief Corps, the Grand Army’s auxiliary that has morphed into a group that lays wreaths on veteran’s graves, promotes patriotism, sends care packages to soldiers and provides holiday baskets and other goods to residents of veterans’ hospitals. While the museum is in Springfield, the relief corps is headquartered in New Hampshire, with officers and members scattered among several states.
It seems a daunting task, and Hill, who has spent a quarter-century working at museums, universities and historical societies around the country, has no illusions. As with any museum, Hill says, the task of figuring out history and organizing collections never ends. He recalls organizing and cataloguing 900 documents authored by Thomas Jefferson while working as an archivist at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis. The historical society obtained the papers in the 1920s, Hill says. More than 60 years passed before the documents were properly catalogued.
In Springfield, the Grand Army’s collection is large and the budget small. According to its most recent filings with the Internal Revenue Service, the National Woman’s Relief Corps had $32,342 in revenue in its most recent fiscal year that ended on Aug. 31, 2016, and expenses of slightly more than $32,000. The organization ended the year with $88,000 in the bank.
An itinerant archivist
Hill receives no pay, but he gets to live rent-free in an apartment attached to the museum.
A Lanphier High School graduate who obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the 1980’s from Sangamon State University (which in 1995 became University of Illinois Springfield), Hill has hopscotched the nation during his career. He has worked as an archivist at Eastern Kentucky University and the Missouri Historical Society, where he had custody of five journals from the Lewis and Clark Expedition but got his biggest thrill when he held a note written by pencil by Ulysses S. Grant: “We’ve taken the second water battery, you can take your ships up now.” It was sent to a fleet admiral as the siege of Vicksburg, a turning point in the Civil War, neared an end.
“The first time I picked that document up, I got goose bumps,” Hill says. “It was very moving, and very profound.”
Hill also has worked as an archivist at the Lakota Archives and Historical Research Center in South Dakota, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and the People-To-People Health Foundation in Virginia. There was also a stint as curator of photographs at the San Diego Historical Society.
“I usually describe myself as an itinerant archivist,” Hill quips.
After retiring six years ago, Hill spent four years traveling the nation in an RV. Eventually, he ended up parked at a friend’s house in Petersburg, but the RV was destroyed by fire, leaving him in search of a place to live. He was living at the Inn at 835 when he heard that the Grand Army museum needed a curator. He has a son in Carlinville and other relatives within driving distance, plus a heart condition that’s being treated by doctors in Springfield. In short, everything fit.
“For the next few years, it will probably be good to settle down somewhere,” he says.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.