750,000 Buttons: The Story of the Civil War

Large windows show off a gorgeous river view. An older couple sits at a small table nibbling pastries; near them, a school group fuels up on sandwiches.

Suspended from the ceiling is a cloud of buttons—750,000 to be exact—hanging from translucent filament. At first glance, it’s an abstract art installation designed to evoke a number of equally abstract reactions.

What it really is: a tribute to each person who lost their life during the Civil War. It’s one of the many artfully curated exhibits at the American Civil War Museum, set to open 2017, that is created to incite reflection.

And it’s in a cool café.

I.

This approach—pitting opposite ideals and elements against one another—is the driving vision behind the museum’s interior design concepts.

It’s a philosophy well-suited to both the history of museum and the legacy of the Civil War, says Matthew Marsili, the museum’s lead interior designer.

Matthew grew up in Columbus, Ohio in a neighborhood built on the site of a Civil War prisoner camp. When he played little league baseball, it was on a diamond right next to the camp’s cemetery.

“The dugout benches were so close to the cemetery that we leaned back as far as we could to rest on the wall,” Matthew says. “Kids jumped the fence to grab foul balls.”

To teach students about the Civil War, his teachers held a mock battle encampment next to the cemetery.

“That night, temperatures dipped low, and we were gifted a speech about the harsh conditions the soldiers had to endure,” says Matthew. “But to me, the omnipresent reminder of the war wasn’t something of great solemnity. It had its moments of reflection, but mostly it was an interesting backdrop to my childhood.”

II.

His experiences growing up at that historic site paved the way for Matthew as he began thinking about the interior of the American Civil War Museum. As such, the design is influenced by the history of the museum site itself.

In its prime, historic Tredegar Iron Works produced 14,000 long tons of iron yearly. As operations grew during the Civil War, so did the site. With every uptick in demand for new products—brass, spikes, ammunition—buildings and structures were added on as needed.

“Today, the site feels like a lot of monolithic structures were dropped into random places,” says Matthew. “It’s very piecemeal, but the haphazard layout also makes the site feel like it’s its own living entity.”

The interior design for the museum will take advantage of that notion and reflect the idea of creating one primary structure, then merging other structures with it, he says.

Take the front desk, for instance. It will be composed of two seemingly separate elements: first the desk, which will be made of natural stone. Attached to that will be the transaction surface, composed of reclaimed wood.

Lobby edit websize

“By taking a number of fragments and uniting them, a comprehensive voice and story is told,” he says. “That’s a critical element to museum design. It all comes down to telling a story.”

With that in mind, Matthew created a “finish” vocabulary—an entire language of materials and design elements from which to build the museum’s aesthetic and tell its tale.

A limited palette of natural stones, metals, and bricks will establish continuity. Wood cladding, pulled from remilled lumber from Virginia barns, will provide a clean yet weathered character that plays off of the idea of old and new.

Matthew is quick to point out that the design won’t be over-the-top historically thematic.

“We definitely aren’t trying to recreate that time period,” he says. “You can never really do that well; it always comes off looking a little like an Old Western movie set.”

The trick, he says, is to echo the sentiment of something in a subtle, sophisticated way.

When he was a kid, Matthew would jump the fence to the cemetery and hang out, sitting at the end of a line of headstones. The pattern created by the formation of the headstones prompted Matthew to design chevron-inspired benches for the museum’s theater.

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“I think a space can nod to the past without attempting to recreate the past.”

III.

An important part of museum design is exhibit design, and while our team isn’t the exhibit designer for the project, we are designing the canvas for those exhibits. That comes with its own set of responsibilities.

“In a typical interior space, say a hotel lobby or a corporate headquarters, the designer is the one who creates an atmosphere,” Matthew says. “That’s not the case here. If you think about it, history has already designed the full expression of this space for us.”

The real challenge in museum design lies in creating an atmosphere that connects people to important items and artifacts that have nothing to do with a building. At the same time, you want the building to speak for itself, but it can’t overpower the message of the museum’s contents.

How do you do that successfully? By creating intentional experiential exhibits that are peppered throughout the space.

If, for instance, you wanted to take a look at all of the Civil War socks the museum possesses—or mourning jewelry, or diaries, for that matter—then you’d be taken to the special collections room. It’s a dedicated space for visitors to become better acquainted with history. Our design takes this experience one step further.

“What’s really interesting about that room is that one wall has a window looking onto the façade of the original foundry building,” Matthew says. “In effect, that places the foundry building as an additional part of the museum’s special collections. You can see the brickwork and old construction methods we’ve lost to time. It’s a way to experience the architecture.”

In effect, that room becomes its own exhibit.

IV.

That brings us back to the café.

This museum is telling a story fraught with dichotomy: North and South. Tradition and Progress. Black and White. Old and New.

It makes sense, then, to place a memorial in the informal, relaxed setting of a café, where life is already happening. People are gathered, sharing ideas and viewpoints picked up along their way through the museum.

CAFE2 websize

“We wanted to create a gesture to the loss without making it feel solemn,” Matthew says. “While the human loss is a large part of what we think about, it is not the whole lesson. The installation will serve as yet another catalyst to elicit conversation, not just reflection.”

That’s what we want the whole museum to be—an opportunity to listen and to share, a blank canvas for contemplation and observation.

“It started with an idea that turned into a concept, which will become an experience that tells a story. That’s what you’ll encounter at the new American Civil War Museum.”

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