In September, in the shadow of the historic battlefield here, twins Rebecca and Ruth Brown opened Civil War Tails, possibly America’s most whimsical war museum.
Their collection of scale-model battle dioramas includes Fort Sumter, the Battle of the Ironclads and their masterpiece, four years in the making, Pickett’s Charge, 1,900 cat soldiers in all.
Yes, cats, an inch or smaller, each one lovingly sculpted in clay by the 32-year-old sisters, then baked in a 225-degree oven. The choice of figurine was born of necessity more than devotion, although the sisters like cats plenty. “We just don’t make clay people as well as cats,” Rebecca says.
But they were determined to have a museum. It had been their dream since they were suburban Philadelphia middle-schoolers and fell in love with history. They imagined a time when they could open a museum in Gettysburg to share their passion with others.
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Their museum is certainly unique, but in the desire to create it, they are far from alone.
America is often depicted as a buffet of fast food and disposable culture, the shiny and new. But this is also a nation besotted with history, collecting – and museums.
We have far more museums than other countries, somewhere between 28,000 and 35,000, depending on which museum organization is counting.
Our museumphoria is not fueled solely by the prosperous. In the land of opportunity, anyone can become a curator, and any home a gallery.
The growth in museums comes from nostalgia, nerds and natural collectors. Most people can’t collect a Renoir, but they can collect old hammers.
Marjorie Schwarze of the University of San Francisco
So we have the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum and, in East Harlem, a garbage depot that is home to the Treasures in the Trash collection, 50,000 found objects – Tamagochis, Furbies, 8-track tapes – curated by New York sanitation engineer Nelson Molina. Off the coast of Maine, patrons can visit the Umbrella Cover Museum. Not the umbrellas, just the covers.
Every president has a museum. William Henry Harrison, president for precisely one month, has two: the presidential site in Indianapolis and Grouseland, his home in Vincennes, Ind., when he was governor of the territory. Elvis has Graceland; Harrison his Grouseland.
What’s behind this exhibitionistic zeal? We are a nation that excels at saving stuff.
“The growth in museums,” says Marjorie Schwarzer, who teaches museum studies at the University of San Francisco, “comes from nostalgia, nerds and natural collectors. Most people can’t collect a Renoir, but they can collect old hammers.”
Indeed, there is a Hammer Museum – not to be confused with L.A.’s Armand Hammer Museum – in southeast Alaska.
“People amass all this stuff,” Schwarzer says, “and where are they going to put it?”
Most museums fall into one of two categories, says Elizabeth Merritt of the American Alliance of Museums. She wrote “How Museums are Like Belly Buttons” for the website of the Center for the Future of Museums, of which she is a vice president.
“Outies,” she notes, “feed a need in the community, like children’s museums.” There has been a bonanza of children’s museums since baby boomers started breeding and looking for ways to stimulate their wee ones intellectually, while avoiding being dragged to the 232nd Pokemon movie.
“Innies,” Merritt writes, are “often created by enthusiasts who are sure that other people will appreciate their passion once it is shared in the form of a museum.”
Among her favorites is the Umbrella Cover Museum on Maine’s Peaks Island, which has a collection of 730 and counting. She is fond of the mission statement by founder Nancy 3. Hoffman, the digit not a typo: “The Umbrella Cover Museum is dedicated to the appreciation of the mundane in everyday life. It is about finding wonder and beauty in the simplest of things, and about knowing that there is always a story behind the cover.”
Civil War Tails is an Innie, based on the twins’ indefatigable zeal for the Civil War and their total recall of intricate military strategy and the lengthy biographies of countless cats, er, officers and infantrymen.
“We want to reach the younger generation,” says Ruth, a lawyer by day. Rebecca works as a waitress at a nearby hotel restaurant so she can man the museum. “If they don’t get the history bug, they’ll get the art bug.”
Or, failing that, “We’ll get the crazy cat people.”
The Brown sisters created their collection at minimal cost, through years of effort, beginning at age 13. So far, they’ve completed 50 dioramas.
With family help, they bought a former girls’ orphanage dorm in Gettysburg, where they live above the two-room museum. The annual amusement license is $50.
Their largest expenses were making the building wheelchair-accessible and buying souvenirs (T-shirts, display domes for model cats) for the gift shelf.
Building an audience, however, can take time.
In February, the Browns hosted 45 adults (tickets $6.50) and 10 kids ($5). There were days when no one visited. The sisters will not get rich on this project, but they’re doing something they love.
Despite the quiet winter, the Browns remain undaunted.
They hope that the summer, with the July anniversary of the battle, will bloom with visitors.
The sisters are working on the latest diorama, the Battle of Little Round Top, the second day of Gettysburg.
Rebecca creates Confederate soldiers, while Ruth constructs the Union forces.
One thousand cats made; 4,000 to go.