The American Civil War Museum opens a new theater and original film, A People’s Contest: America’s Civil War and Emancipation, Friday.
The Robins Theater is a 1,128-square-foot, 67-seat space and part of the original concept of the $25 million museum that opened to the public in 2019.
“The theater was… meant to be phase two [of the project] and a compliment to the ACWM flagship exhibit, “A People’s Contest: Struggles for Nation and Freedom in the Civil War America,” Jennifer Maloney, a spokeswoman for the museum, said via email.
The project has been delayed for the past three years as supply chain issues slowed construction of the space.
But now, on Friday, the Robins Theater opens to the public with the original film, A People’s Contest, which explores the origins, course and aftermath of the Civil War. Produced by Solid Light Inc. in Kentucky, the film cost $2 million to make.
Stephanie Arduini, the museum’s assistant director, says this film aims to differentiate itself from other museum films by amplifying voices that are often overlooked.
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“It’s important to understand this story and get a full view of this story with all of its voices, because you can’t understand the whole story without seeing everyone,” said Arduino. “The entire story digs into this story, which provokes many questions and connections to the present.”
The film lasts 13 minutes and is open to visitors throughout the day.
The Robins Theater features a two-layer screen that allows filmmakers to add dimension and depth to still life photos. Comprised of live acting, photos and computer-generated imagery, the film overlays visual elements to provide context and provide viewers with an immersive feel.
While the film provides an overview of the Civil War, it does not emphasize the controversial hallmarks that often dominate narrative related to the Civil War and Virginia, such as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and JEB Stuart. The film contains voices of people of color and women, voices not always present in Civil War history.
“We wanted to include many voices of average people speaking about their experiences on the ground because it’s so much more powerful when someone who’s experienced it says it themselves,” Arduino said.
According to Arduino, while the outcome of the Civil War meant the fate of four million slaves in the South, the fate of democracy and the outcome of the great American experiment were also at stake. She stressed that the war was not won quickly or efficiently.
As the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond has a unique power to tell the story.
“You can understand this story in a way that you can’t understand anywhere else, like being here at the focal point of so much of the military effort of the war,” Arduino said. “You’re in this room, you’re right on the edge where the fires came from.”
The American Civil War Museum is housed in the old Tredegar Ironworks building, which supplied arms to the Confederacy during the war. At the end of the film, a photograph taken during the rebuilding period shows black and white Tredegar Ironworks employees working side by side.
Arduino says understanding war is important to overcoming racial differences. In the summer of 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, they said people flocked to the museum to learn more about the roots of racial issues in America.
“Understanding this history is crucial in order to have this basic background before we can really develop solutions for the future,” said Arduino. “It’s like being ill and having to understand what’s ailing you. You can’t treat the symptoms over and over again.”
The American Civil War Museum is located at 490 Tredegar St. The new film is included with admission, which is $16 for adults, $14 for seniors, and $8 for under-17s, and is free for children under 5. Museum, visit acwm.org.