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Remains After War: Politics of Bodily Display in the Army Medical Museum’s Ford’s Theater Location

Fri, October 9, 10:00 to 11:45am, Sheraton Centre, Chestnut West

Abstract

Just two years after Lincoln’s assassination, the Army Medical Museum (AMM) moved into Ford’s Theater. In this location, the museum became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Washington, DC-- over 6,000 visitors entered the museum in its first eight months at the theater! In addition to its historic site, the museum displayed medical oddities and offered professional training to physicians and pathologists. The AMM also displayed the remains of maimed and diseased Civil War soldiers which, in combination with the site, turned the AMM into a kind of unofficial memorial site for veterans and civilians alike. The curators’ decision to drape display cases in flags and sabres only underscored the tone of reverence and patriotism that visitors brought to the exhibitions. This paper will draw on insights from disability studies and museum studies to analyze the AMM as a site where 19th century civilians and veterans encountered the pain, injury, and suffering of the American Civil War. In addition to making the suffering of Civil war veterans visible to the general, civilian public, the museum also served as a site of contestation. In the AMM, the state laid claim to soldiers’ bodies long after the cessation of hostilities.
Rosemarie Garland Thomson and Richard Sandell, along with other scholars active in disability and museum studies, have long argued that medical museums reinforce a medical, rather than social, interpretation of disability. The Ford’s Theater-era AMM complicates these claims because visitors could not escape the role of war in creating the disabled, but celebrated, bodies on display. Rather than equate Civil War veterans with their maimed limbs or assistive devices, the museum positioned these bodies as patriotic and ennobled because of the conditions in which these men lived (and died).
Veterans who entered the AMM confronted what “remains” after war. In his 2006 history of the museum, Michael Rhode, the museum’s chief archivist, recounts the story of a veteran who discovered his own arm on display in the museum. When he asked for his arm back, John Brinton, the museum’s curator, asked him how long he had enlisted for. When the veteran answered “the duration,” Brinton cheekily told him to come back when the war was over. While there is no record of what the veteran intended to do with his preserved arm, the story indicates the ways in which a soldier’s body never again belonged to him. Even decades after mustering out of the Army, a soldier’s remains remain part of the state. Instead of allowing the disabled soldier to move forward with his life, the AMM kept Union soldiers in a perpetual state of noble suffering on behalf of a righteous cause.

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