When the pandemic forced museums to delay or, in some cases, cancel their opening for the 2020 season, Curator Jen Carr at the American Independence Museum saw an opportunity.
“If I could take our proposed exhibits for this year and put them into a digital format, it would allow us to share history with people all over the world,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges, though, was how to create these digital exhibits, as she said New Hampshire was soon under a stay-at-home order.
“Under better conditions, there would have been an opportunity for all of us to sit at a table as a staff and look at a shared computer to plan and discuss these exhibits,” she explained. “Since we all had to work from home, though, these exhibits were designed through email communications and phone calls.”
Citing the inherent challenge in creating an exhibit in which the inputs were often developed privately and shared afterward, Carr said the effort has resulted in two exhibits: Dunlap Broadside History and Commemoration and Memorialization.
“We are very excited because these exhibits are available to the public year-round, whereas physical exhibits in our museum are limited to seasonal availability,” said Carr.
As for the subject matter of the digital exhibits, Carr said Dunlap Broadside History examines the American Independence Museum’s copy of a first printing of the Declaration of Independence.
After the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, a man named John Dunlap was asked to print copies of it. These copies were then sent to all states to be read to the American public.
“As Exeter was the capital of New Hampshire at the time, a copy was sent here,” noted Carr, who said the museum’s digital exhibit explores this journey and more. “The exhibit provides an in-depth look at many aspects related to this Broadside, and it features videos and numerous images, too.”
In Commemoration and Memorialization, the museum explores “obscure” items in its collection that reveal unusual methods of commemoration that may be found through US history.
One item highlighted is a piece of an elm tree that once stood in Cambridge, Massachusetts where George Washington is said to have taken command of the Continental Army in 1775.
“When the tree fell in 1923, pieces of it were saved and sent all over the country to commemorate Washington and the Continental Army,” she said.
While generally accepted as history that Washington stood under this elm when he assumed command of the Army, Carr said the story comes from a fictionalized account of the event.
“There is no evidence that Washington ever stood under this tree,” she said. “There is also no evidence that he did not. This item in the exhibit shows that history is sometimes unconfirmed and that the things we commemorate may never have happened at all.”
According to Executive Director Emma Stratton, these first two digital exhibits represent an important first step for the American Independence Museum.
“In the age of COVID-19, we want to create opportunities that bring the museum to the visitor,” she said. “These exhibitions provide us with the opportunity to educate, engage and inspire visitors of all ages from around the globe.”
In looking ahead, both Stratton and Carr cite “new digital exhibits are on the way.”
“Like the current ones, these digital exhibits are built with learning management software and provide customizable learning experiences,” added Carr. “Stay tuned.”
Home to a world-class collection of 3,000 historic artifacts, the museum welcomes more than 5,000 visitors annually and distinguishes itself with educational school programs and events that make history fun and relevant.