Updated: Wednesday, May 4, 2016, 10:37 AM
The homeless Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, steward of what scholars regard as one of the finest collections of Civil War materials anywhere but possessing no place to display them, reached an agreement Monday to transfer ownership of its roughly 3,000 artifacts to the Gettysburg Foundation, the private, nonprofit partner of the National Park Service.
At the same time, the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall has agreed to mount a permanent exhibition exploring the constitutional impact of the Civil War, using artifacts drawn from what is now the foundation's Gettysburg collection.
It is believed it will be the first museum exhibit exploring the war's constitutional legacy.
Like the Flying Dutchman, the Civil War Museum has traveled for years, rich in its memories of the dead, but invisible and portless in the land of the living.
"Our goal is to preserve the collection with integrity and to ensure the collection will be available to the citizens of Philadelphia," said Oliver St. Clair Franklin, board chairman of the Civil War Museum. "And we're very pleased the National Constitution Center is going to preserve space for an exhibition to explore what was our greatest constitutional crisis."
Joanne M. Hanley, president of the Gettysburg Foundation, which owns and operates the visitor center and 22,000-square-foot museum at Gettysburg National Military Park, called the collection "priceless."
"The significance of these pieces, you can't put into words," she said. "There's no hyperbole that can describe them."
Jeffrey Rosen, chief executive and president of the Constitution Center, said the future constitutional exhibition, focusing on passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, would be a few years in the making.
For one thing, he said, all money for the exhibition, which he estimated might cost up to $2 million, would have to be in hand before proceeding.
"Our exhibition is contingent on securing funding in advance," he said. "As soon as the funds are secured, we'll have a better sense of the timeline."
The postwar constitutional amendments, among other things, abolished slavery, addressed equal protection under the law, defined citizenship, and guaranteed the right to vote.
Sharon Smith, president and chief executive of the Civil War Museum, said the collection was currently in storage at Gettysburg, where it played a central role in the Gettysburg Foundation's commemorative exhibition related to the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg.
That exhibition closed last year, but Hanley said the collection would be deeply mined for a long-term exhibition scheduled to open at the end of June on the art of the Civil War.
"We will always have major pieces on view," Hanley said.
Smith said she believed the agreement with the foundation and the NCC would conclude the Civil War Museum's odyssey, which began in earnest about a decade ago and has included lawsuits, virtual closure, failed partnership efforts, an aborted relocation to Richmond, Va., a failed state bailout, a failed deal with Independence National Historical Park, and seemingly endless searches for a home.
"It's been like a soap opera," Smith said. "It's been going on for years and years."
The roots of the museum go back to the end of the Civil War, when Union officers formed the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS). In 1888 they founded a museum in Philadelphia, and over the years, Union officers and their descendants donated a rich array of artifacts, including plaster casts of Lincoln's hands and face, battle photos, Jefferson Davis' smoking jacket, battle flags, the first John Wilkes Booth wanted poster, bullet-riddled tree trunks, photos of black soldiers and regiments, diaries, letters, drawings, swords, and firearms - a seemingly endless stream of personal, quirky, evocative objects.
For years, the collection was housed in a stately Pine Street mansion. But internal squabbles broke out in 2000, sparked by dwindling finances, declining visitation, a failed affiliation with the Union League, and an incendiary proposal to move everything to a new museum in Richmond, former capital of the Confederacy.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office stepped in and blocked the Richmond move. In the next several years, the Pine Street building was sold. An effort to move into the historic First Bank of the United States, located in Independence Park, fell through. The artifacts found homes in boxes, and the museum searched in vain for a home in Philadelphia, city of its birth.
On the plus side, however, a strong affiliation grew with the Gettysburg Foundation, which has conserved and stored much of the museum's collection and now stores it, officials said.
(The famous preserved head of Gen. George G. Meade's horse, Old Baldy, which was displayed by the Civil War Museum for many years, was returned to its owner, the Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library in Frankford, in 2010.)
The framework of the agreement just announced - the transfer of ownership of artifacts to Gettysburg, with a subsequent long-term loan to the NCC - emerged in the last two years as the best alternative to a stand-alone Philadelphia museum housing the collection.
In an April 25 letter to museum chair Franklin, the head of MOLLUS in Pennsylvania said his organization was "saddened" to learn that despite "a decade of work," the museum would not have a new museum home in Philadelphia.
That said, commander-in-chief James Alan Simmons wrote that the museum's plan of transferring the artifacts to the Gettysburg Foundation is "prudent and appropriate" and "the best alternative."
The Civil War Museum, while giving its artifacts to Gettysburg, remains owner of an archive of more than 10,000 documents - journals, diaries, papers, photographs, books. Those materials are housed at the Union League, under a separate stewardship agreement, and are available for research.
"We're running on fumes," Smith said, regarding the museum's finances. "There's virtually no money. We're down to a very small amount. That's why it's important to make sure all this is taken care of."