A Visitor's Experience: The Alabama Department of Archives and History
An article by Sean A. Flynt
The Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, Alabama, is an easy and rewarding side-trip for arms aficionados and military history enthusiasts traveling Interstate 65, the main corridor between the Gulf Coast and points north.
Established in 1901, the ADAH under directors Thomas McAdory Owen and his wife, Marie Bankhead Owen, became a model repository for historical documents and artifacts. Among many other categories of items, the ADAH was charged with collecting "war relics, [such] as uniforms, swords, arms and equipment."
When Marie Bankhead Owen sought funds in the 1930s to build a combined war memorial and ADAH facility, WWI veterans supported the cause with both cash and donations of personal service equipment and war trophies. Each succeeding generation of Alabama veterans followed suit. The military collection now spans over two centuries of warfare, with items ranging from swords to submachine guns, shakos to Kevlar helmets. In fact, the ADAH's military collection is second only to its 340,000 item Native American collection (another compelling reason to visit).
The ADAH is still housed in a white neoclassical building completed in 1940. The building's memorial purpose is confirmed by military sculptures on the ground floor (most notably, the colossal bronze figure of a Spanish American War infantryman). Stairs and elevators lead to the museum galleries on the second floor, and the military gallery is opposite the Native American collection.
The military collection is rich without being overwhelming. It can be viewed in detail in an hour, although even a peek in the other galleries is likely to tempt a visitor to explore further. Fortunately for those traveling with small children, the ADAH offers a supervised playroom where kids can make art, try on historical costumes and generally be kids. The young ones need not be parked, however. The ADAH offers online "Gallery Guides" and Youth Activity Sheets that can help draw young visitors into the collections. Don't pass up the chance to introduce "Pusan Perimeter" into the vocabulary of a budding military historian.
The ADAH Web site offers a variety of other digital resources, including extensive, searchable military records, unit histories and related Civil War materials.
The museum galleries are open 8:30 am-4:30 pm Monday through Saturday (be sure to check for holiday or other special hours). Maps, directions and other visitor information are available at the ADAH site.
Within a few blocks of the ADAH in downtown Montgomery, visitors can relive key moments in U.S. history, from the Civil War to Civil Rights. Slightly farther afield is the renowned Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The world's sixth largest Shakespeare festival is permanently housed in a 100,000 square foot Palladian-style complex on 250 acres. Shakespeare is only part of the company's repertoire, and family-friendly productions are common. The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts shares the Blount Cultural Park with ASF.
Viewing the Collection
One doesn't need a guide for the ADAH galleries, but Debbie Pendleton, a friend in Public Services at the ADAH, put me in touch with curators Bob Bradley and Bob Cason, both extremely knowledgeable, down-to-earth and excited about their work. They introduced me to the public military gallery and led me through an equally impressive reserve collection.
Military items on public display range from a pipe-tomahawk owned by explorer Meriwether Lewis to a WWII era U.S. Model M3 "grease gun". Even foreign military items are here, brought home by returning soldiers as war trophies. Most striking among the trophies are a WWI-era German helmet and breastplate that would look no more out of place in 1514 than 1914.
Many of the collection's other arms are displayed alongside original military uniforms and accoutrements, substantially increasing the visual appeal of the collection and leaving informed viewers marveling at the quality and quantity of rare items. Curators Bradley and Cason acknowledged that the collection leaves even top military historians slack jawed.
The reserve military collection is as impressive as the public gallery, and even more so as far as accoutrements are concerned. Sword belts, canteens, helmets, buttons, insignia and other small uniform items are stored here, as are several wars worth of military firearms, U.S. and otherwise. "Rarities" are so common in the locked cabinets of the storeroom that living history buffs visit and study items in order to make sure their historical impressions are perfect down to the last stitch.
Every glance around the storeroom lands on some fascinating item: an arms stand for a 19th century cavalry barracks, a heavy machinegun associated with the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion (in a crate describing the contents as drill parts), Civil War artillery ammunition of every description and even the rough, warped saplings that once bore Confederate battle flags into the field and which still bear U.S. War Department capture numbers.
Other Things of Note
Despite the popular embrace of the "rebel" flag, Confederate battle flags varied as much as the units they served, with unique designs, colors, mottoes and hand-lettered battle honors. Although relatively few of these fragile artifacts are on public display in the galleries, the ADAH Web site includes many photos and the museum's gift shop offers books and posters documenting the rich variety of the flag collection.
A small selection of these flags is on display near the military gallery, and includes the flag of the 13th Alabama infantry regiment captured in the famed "Pickett's charge" at the Battle of Gettysburg. Displayed next to it is the sword of Birkett D. Fry, Colonel of the 13th Alabama. This display illustrates one of the most remarkable aspects of the ADAH collection, which consists not just of isolated items but also of superlative artifactsa portrait, a sword, a uniform, a flaglinked to each other and representing a complete narrative.
Anyone with the slightest interest in American military history (or Native America) must not miss a chance to visit the collections of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Even a brief exploration of the museum galleries will leave a visitor in perfect sympathy with curator Bradley, who once said of his work at ADAH, "You won't believe what they pay me to do!"
About the Author
Sean Flynt is a public relations professional in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in the martial culture of all periods and people but focuses on 1450-1650, with special interest in German and Austrian arms and armour.
Photographer: Sean Flynt
* Southbound visitors interested in the CSN should be sure to visit the City Museum of Mobile, which has a number of impressive displays on the subject.