At the end of this month we say good-bye to Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War. I, for one, will be sad to see it go. I’ve not only enjoyed the exhibit and the chance to work with Karen and Todd on our “Maryland edition”, but also the outstanding programs that Trillion put together and the fun we’ve had with our volunteer docents and museum educators on the special tours.
I’ve gained dozens of new insights over the last few months but the one that sticks with me is actually about “saying good-bye”.
When Ross Kelbaugh came to speak at JMM at the beginning of December, he spoke about the boom in photography in Baltimore at the start of the Civil War (and the involvement of members of the Jewish community like the Bendann brothers and David Bacharach in this new “high tech” industry). As many as 50 photo studios were doing business here in 1861. Why the boom? Well one of the causes that Kelbaugh points to is a technological innovation know as cartes de visite. Just before the start of the war, photographers perfected the technique of printing multiple copies of playing card-sized images to card stock. These images were affordable, even for people of modest means and could be easily slipped into the mail for loved ones. You can imagine that soldiers sent to staging areas, like Baltimore, were very anxious to share pictures of themselves in uniform with their loved ones and images of nearby battlefields could bring the war home in a way that was unthinkable just 10 years earlier. This keen interest fueled the photography craze (more about this can be found in a New York Times’ “Disunion” column by Andrea Volpe from August 6, 2013).
I look at this as a first revolution in the concept of “away”. For thousands of years, when husbands and sons went off to affairs of war or commerce, there was an absolute loss of connection. Their wives, children and siblings in most cases had only their memories to rely on (or perhaps an old portrait) to invoke the image of the person who was truly “away”. But the Civil War chipped away at the concept that saying good-bye completely severed visual contact with those who were away.
Today, we’ve experienced a second revolution in “away”. With Skype, Face Time, Facebook and more, we almost never completely lose visual contact with those who have gone away, whether they are at summer camp or at a base 10,000 miles from home. The technology has changed what it means to take leave and endure separation.
All this is not to say that we have solved the problems of being apart. Images can be a poor substitute for human contact. But nothing ever leaves us as completely as it once did, and we’ll have the pictures of the Civil War exhibit on our website to prove it.
(editor’s note: Passages Through the Fire closes on February 27th. Due to the fragile nature of the artifacts this will be the end of the exhibit tour, everything will be returned to the lenders. If you haven’t seen it yet, we encourage you to take advantage of your last opportunity)
A blog post by executive director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click HERE.