Book Review: Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection

Smithsonian Books. Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection.  Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books. 2013. ISBN 9781588343895, color and b/w photos, index, 368 pages, $40.

If you are searching for an impressive looking and hefty coffee table book that you can leave out for guests to browse and perhaps use as a conversation starter this would be an excellent choice. If you are looking for something with more depth you should look elsewhere.

Published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the war, the book unimaginatively uses 150 objects from the Smithsonian collections to illustrate the Civil War. While it is very nice to see these items, especially for those of us who do not have the ability to easily visit the various Smithsonian museums, it just seems as if this is a large grouping thrown together in order to publish an expensive book. While loosely chronological, the book is not put into real chapters. Rather, each of the 150 objects forms its own short chapter so to speak. Another difficulty of this book for me is trying to figure out which museum holds which object. These individual artifacts are not labeled, instead the reader must turn to the back of the book and by using page numbers, rather than artifact/chapter number, find the listing, then translate that by using the key provided. Be sure to have your magnifying sheet handy, the type is quite small. No bibliography or notes are included so verifying statements and conclusions is difficult.

This brings me to another point this book drives home to me, which is the donating of historical objects. Please, please, please, do yourselves and others a favor and consider your local historical museums. The Smithsonian, and similar institutions, are cram packed with objects that will NEVER see the light of day. Think Raiders of the Lost Ark. These monstrous archives can not be cared for properly and with the exception of genuinely unique items pieces will eventually be accessioned, boxed, and forgotten about or disposed of in some manner. At smaller museums, these pieces will more likely than not be treasured and put on display. People will actually be able to enjoy the artifacts you have donated and isn’t that the purpose. For many small museums donations are their only source of new materials. Their budgets do not allow for purchases so your item could become a show piece.

Back to the book, as mentioned, it is truly a beautiful book. The photography is top-notch and the book is solid. It really is more a coffee table piece rather than anything you will learn from or actually sit down and read cover to cover. The chapters are brief so you can easily pick this up, put it down, and start on it again whenever and not have forgotten anything. Don’t expect to learn much, but rather, just marvel in the images.

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