Recently, the American Independence Museum expanded Commemoration and Memorialization, a digital exhibit that explores the sometimes unusual methods of commemoration Americans have used throughout the nation’s history.
The expansion, according to Curator Jen Carr, includes a look at a mourning ring in the museum’s collection that is believed to contain a lock of George Washington’s hair.
“When George Washington died, the entire nation grieved,” she said. “As travel was more difficult at that time, many towns across the United States held funerals for him so that those unable to travel to the State funeral were able to pay their respects to the man who led the nation through the turbulent years surrounding the founding.”
While America was memorializing the nation’s first president and a national hero, Carr said the ring memorialized Washington as a man for those who actually knew him.
“This ring came into the possession of those who did not know him and eventually became part of the American Independence Museum’s collection,” she noted.
Through that process, the ring’s meaning changed.
“It is now a way to commemorate Washington’s life and what he means to the American people today,” she said.
It is no longer a ring that commemorates a personal loss, she explained, but rather “an historical item that shows the significance of Washington’s legacy and how his contributions to American history continue to be relevant.”
“The ring’s meaning shifted from representing a personal relationship between Washington and the friend who possessed this ring following his death to the relationship all Americans have with their nation’s first president,” she added.
According to Emma Stratton, executive director of the museum, the digital exhibit as a whole helps visitors experience a more intimate interaction with its 3,000+ item collection.
“While most objects on view in the museum are in cases or behind glass frames, digital photography allows you to see all sides of an object, including the interior monogram on this mourning ring,” she said.
Acknowledging the museum itself presents “a finite amount of wall space for interpretation,” Stratton said digital exhibits provide visitors with a multimedia and in-depth experience on a single topic, event, or object.
“It’s a new realm of exploration for visitors that also reduces barriers, such as cost and location,” she added. “During this time of COVID-19, when it is not possible to visit our museum, we are delighted to be able to bring our museum to the general public.”
Home to a world-class collection of 3,000 historic artifacts, the museum is currently developing a variety of public and education programs in digital formats to encourage digital inclusion for all ages.
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.