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This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to author Roby Sweet. Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Cat Travel: Gettysburg Museum Uses Cats in Civil War Dioramas

Friends, today we’re excited to be kicking off a new occasional series about cat travel—not traveling with cats, mind you, but traveling to see cat-related attractions. And we’re even more excited to share what we think must be the most interesting attraction in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Just in case you’re not up on your Civil War history, Gettysburg was the site of a major battle between North and South in July 1863. These days the town is full of little shops and museums, and it is a fun place to visit.

Joining us today is  Rebecca Brown, one of the owners and creators of the Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Rebecca, welcome to the blog. You and your twin sister, Ruth, have a very unique museum. Can you briefly tell us what it’s all about?

 Thank you for having me.  Civil War Tails is a museum of the dioramas that Ruth and I have been making for over 20 years.  We make all the soldiers by hand, and most of the other features as well, from forts and ships to horses and cannons and coffeepots.  The twist is that every soldier is actually a cat.  Currently, we have over 5,500 cats on display (out of over 8,000).

Photo of Little Round Top diorama, Civil War Tails Diorama Museum, Gettysburg, PA.
This diorama captures the moment in the Battle of Gettysburg
when the 20th Maine began their forward movement
on Little Round Top.
Photo courtesy of Civil War Tails Diorama Museum.
Since the figures are all to-scale and the dioramas each show a specific point in time, they let us see what the scene might have looked like in real-life.  It’s like a glimpse back in time.  And, each diorama is inspired by the stories of the men (and women) involved, so it’s a great way to learn about the people of the Civil War and see how we can really relate to the stories of these people from over 150 years ago. 

Fascinating! Why did you decide to use cats in your dioramas?
When we were 11 years old, I read biographies on Generals Lee and Grant.  Then I made the generals out of clay—only I made them cats.  It was just natural to do it and now, looking back, I think it’s because we’ve always had cats as pets, and we’ve always pretended we were cats, even if we were playing Robin Hood (of course, the Sheriff of Nottingham and his bad guys were always dogs).  As we continued to read about the Civil War, we continued making cats of officers who were gallant or brave or just looked cute in their photos, and we would make cats for them to command.  Eventually, we began making dioramas with them, to commemorate the various stories we read about.  So, this really has just been our hobby since 1995.

So, aside from the fact that the soldiers are cats, how historically accurate are the dioramas? Do visitors get a feel for what really happened in the battles?
We try to make the dioramas as accurate as possible (besides the tails).  Each one is to-scale, so six feet on the ground is six feet for the cat.  Each cat represents one soldier, which helps to give an idea of what the overall scene would have looked like during the Civil War. 

The Homestead, Gettysburg, PA. Now home to Civil War Tails Diorama Museum.
This is the Homestead. It used to be
part of an orphanage, and now it’s home to the
Civil War Tails Diorama Museum.
Photo courtesy Civil War Tails Diorama Museum.
On the individual level, we add detail to all of our figures.  So, Confederate officers have the Austrian knots on their sleeves, identified officers and men have correct facial hair if a photo is available, the 72nd Pennsylvania cats have red piping and buttons on their jackets (each one took Ruth 30 minutes to make, instead of the usual 5–7 minutes), and so on.  On our Little Round Top diorama, each three-quarter-inch-tall Union cat will have a tiny Maltese cross on top of his kepi (cap) as a corps badge. 

On a diorama level, we try to calculate the number of soldiers that would be present in the given units, we check all our sources and maps to place identified officers and men as accurately as possible, we take note of “minor” details like the fact that the ironclad ship CSS Virginia (Merrimack) had her boats shot away on the first day of fighting (i.e., they wouldn’t be present on our diorama of the second day), and so on. 

I do think our dioramas help people see history in action.  We’ve had visitors comment on how helpful it was to see the Angle populated as it would have been during Pickett’s Charge, after having gone to the battlefield itself.  Or, if people come to the museum before going, they can then picture the action later, as they stand on the actual ground and look across the fields.  Of course, we have non-Gettysburg dioramas too, so people can see other scenes like the ironclads CSS Virginia and USS Monitor duking it out. 

I’m amazed at the level of detail you add, down to the specific uniforms and even the facial hair. What materials do you use in the dioramas, and roughly how long does it take to create one?
The older cats are made out of modeling clay, which doesn’t harden.  Now, we use Sculpey, which is a clay that we bake.  The great thing about Sculpey is that the cat can be glued down and he won’t melt, fall over, drop a rifle barrel or arm, etc.  This is also true of our horses (over 80% of all our horses are handmade) and cannons. 

Photo of Capt. Spear figure, Little Round Top diorama, Civil War Tails Diorama Museum, Gettysburg, PA
The Browns include a remarkable level of detail,
right down to facial hair on identifiable individuals.
This is Captain Spear on Little Round Top.
Photo courtesy Civil War Tails Diorama Museum.
For ground cover, buildings, ships, trains, and other features, we’ve traditionally used ordinary materials you can find around your house, like toothpicks, paper clips, cardboard, and wire.  We also use materials you can find at any craft store, like reindeer moss for treetops or “turf” for grass.  On our larger dioramas, we tell how to make various aspects of the dioramas, like fences and trees, so kids can see how easy it really is.  The Angle looks complicated, but anyone can do it.  And that’s why we have some of our older scenes pulled out, so kids (and adults) can see how we started out—with blue and green paper for water and grass—and know that making a diorama isn’t all that scary or daunting.

How long it takes to make a diorama depends on the size of the diorama and the number of cats.  The Angle has probably taken about 4½ years, and we’re actually in the process of tweaking it.  When we’re finished, it will have 3,000 cats on it.  Little Round Top has been in the works for four years, but we’ve probably only put about a year and a half of work into it so far (it has been “overcome by events”).  It’ll probably take two or three more focused years of work to finish it.  On the other hand, the ironclads took about a year and a half to complete, since most of the work was making the ships, with only a couple hundred cats on them, instead of thousands.  Smaller scenes might take a few months.

I’m guessing you haven’t always run a diorama museum. How did you end up there?
We were homeschooled, and in high school we did lessons on the Civil War for other homeschooled students.  The kids really loved seeing our dioramas, particularly The Angle.  We also began working at a retirement community, so each year we would take our dioramas over for a one-day display in their auditorium.  The residents also loved our dioramas.  One lady would tell us, every year, “You should take them into schools!”  In 2012, I decided I really should take her seriously and start thinking about it.  Well, by then we had not only The Angle (5.5’x7.5’), but Fort Sumter (~4’x4’ and really heavy!) and Little Round Top (11’x4’8”), among others.  Fitting them into a classroom did not seem feasible!  And, traveling is hard on the older modeling-clay cats.  So we began considering starting a museum.

In spring of 2013, we bought the old Homestead in Gettysburg.  The house was built in 1869 as a girls’ dormitory for the National Soldiers’ Orphans’ Homestead next door.  Not only is it awesome to have our museum up and running (we opened in the fall of 2015), but it’s mind-boggling to be in a building with a history related to the battle (for the connection, look up Sgt. Amos Humiston or “The Children of the Battlefield”). 

Are there any real, live cats at the museum?
Yes!  Kitty is 17 years old and has fully embraced the title of “Museum Cat.”  She enjoys saying “hi” to visitors and has been known to come downstairs specifically to greet people.  So, if you stop by, don’t forget to say hi to her—assuming she’s on duty.  Sometimes the pillow upstairs is just too cozy and warm, so she takes a day off from museum duty.
Here is Kitty, the 17-year-old real cat you
might be lucky enough to meet when you visit
the museum.
Photo courtesy Civil War Tails Diorama Museum.

Can you give us an inside tip on Civil War Tails?
If you come to Civil War Tails, there are a few fun things about the dioramas that I like to point out.  The ironclads have a couple surprises that I won’t spoil for you, there is a tunnel on another diorama, and there is one dog somewhere…  He’s a real dog, not a soldier, but it takes a while to find him.  If you want to search for him, you might want to tell me, because I have a habit of showing him to people, and that would spoil your scavenger hunt!

Do you have any special events or additions planned for this year?
Last year we had fun with our first anniversary, and we are looking forward to celebrating again this fall.  On Labor Day weekend (Friday, Saturday, and Monday), we will be offering discounted admission and having a scavenger hunt with prizes.  If you’re interested, just keep an eye out on our Facebook page or website (www.civilwartails.com) as Labor Day approaches.

As far as additions go, we do have several older dioramas in storage that we would like to bring out.  We just brought out a couple for display—Capt. Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts Battery at Gettysburg, and Gen. Joe Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry leaping off a 25-ft cliff into the Duck River.  The cats and horses are all cleaned up, repainted, and happy to be out of the closet!   

This has been really fascinating, Rebecca. We're so glad you could join us today and tell us about the diorama museum. It sounds like an excellent place to visit! Friends, if you want to learn more about the Civil War Tails Diorama Museum, check out the details below.


Information

The Civil War Tails Diorama Museum is located at 785 Baltimore Street, Gettysburg, PA 17325.

You can reach them by email at info@civilwartails.com or by phone (717-420-5273). Also check out their website (www.civilwartails.com) and keep up with them on Facebook (www.facebook.com/civilwartails).

Civil War Tails is a family-run museum, so hours can vary a little, but they are open most evenings until 8:00. Be sure to email them or check their hours page before visiting.

4 comments:

  1. This was a very interesting report! It would be fun to see the museum. Mom likes history a lot, even though it was her worse subject in school. Her Dad always said "Who wouldn't want to know what went on before us that got us here"

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  2. This is too fantastic words! The creativity is simply out of this world! As a cat fanatic and history buff, a visit to Civil War Tails is most definitely going on my bucket list.

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  3. That sounds very interesting although I wouldn't want to see cats on a battle field.

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