Medford Historical Society’s Photographic Exhibition Of the People: Faces of the Civil War Set To Open

by Brett Schulte on February 26, 2009 · 0 comments

Jim Kiely of the Medford (MA) Historical Society recently emailed me the following information about a new photographic exhibit entitled Of the People: Faces of the Civil War:

“Of The People:  Faces of the Civil War”

A photo exhibition running February 7 – April 20, 2009 at the Medford Historical Society

10 Governors Avenue, Medford, Mass.

Fifty-five rare Civil War photographs from a remarkable and nearly forgotten collection will be publicly exhibited for the first time by the Medford Historical Society.  “Of the People: Faces of the Civil War” includes stunning portraits of the men, women, children, freed slaves, immigrants and Native Americans who fought and were profoundly affected by the Civil War.  The exhibit and an accompanying lecture series runs February 27-April 30 at MHS headquarters in Medford, Mass.


“The Medford hoard of photographs is without a doubt one of the most important collections in this country of prints …from some of the most important photographers of the Civil War,” says Gordon Baldwin, associate curator of photography at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  The collection of 3,200 prints includes work by such famous Civil War photographers as Andrew Russell and Matthew Brady.  Yet it went undiscovered for decades.

Originally amassed by General Samuel Crocker Lawrence, commander of the Lawrence Light Guard during the Civil War and the first mayor of Medford, the collection was transferred to the MHS headquarters in 1948.  It sat untouched until 1990, when a young boy visited on a school trip.  Excited by the artifacts he saw, he returned with his father, a Civil War buff, who was shown the trunk of photos and recognized its importance.  Experts soon determined the collection to be one of the largest and finest of its kind.


“Of the People: Faces of the Civil War” marks one of the few public exhibits of photos from the collection, and the first of portraits.  Timed to coincide with the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president, the exhibit captures the incredible diversity of people engaged in the Civil War, and the social and moral  ambiguities of the war itself.  “These images tell important stories of the most calamitous period in American history,” explains Jim Kiely, MHS board member and exhibit coordinator.

The clarity and detail in the photos is particularly stunning in prints that have been enlarged to more than double their original size.  “Important elements that were invisible in the small prints come to life in the larger ones,” says Kiely.  “Now we see the bandages of amputees in a field hospital ward and the grim countenance of an itinerant laundress pausing from work.”  The quality of the prints is in large part the result of platinum-based development methods used in the 1800s.


The collection has been safely stored since its discovery, but efforts to preserve and promote it stalled in the late 1990s.  In 2007 MHS renewed the drive to catalog and preserve the images with the help of the Blue and Gray Education Society of Virginia, which provided funds for a scanner and other equipment to digitize the collection.   MHS members, Boloco, Whole Foods, the Genzyme Foundation and Tufts University generously support “Of the People: Faces of the Civil War.”  While additional funding is being sought for preservation, any profits from the exhibition will go toward the digitization project.

This exhibit marks not only a turning point for the collection, but also for the Medford Historical Society itself.  MHS has undergone a professional transformation in recent years with the introduction of new leadership in 2005.  In addition to renewing efforts to preserve and exhibit the Civil War collection, it has begun cataloging other important possessions, started a historical marker program, and extended its public visiting hours.  In January it completed its second successful annual-appeal campaign.


“Of the People” will open at MHS headquarters at 10 Governors Ave in Medford on February 27 from 7:00-9:00 pm.  Through April 30, public exhibition hours will be 12:00-3:00 pm on Saturdays and 12-4:00 pm on Sundays.  Admission is free.

The MHS is easily accessible by I-93 and public transit, including the 325 and 326 buses from Boston and the 94 bus from Davis Square T-stop and the West Medford commuter rail station.  Street and free lot parking are available nearby. The exhibit is walking distance from the Hyatt Place hotel and several shops and restaurants in Medford Square.

Visitors who make the short trip north of Boston to see “Of the People: Faces of the Civil War” will find that the photographs are only one of the overlooked historic gems in Medford.  Other notable attractions at MHS are additional Civil War artifacts, historic maps and family papers.  Just one mile away are the Royall House and Slave Quarters, both National Historic Landmarks.  The Slave Quarters is the only such structure in the Northern United States, and the House is considered to be one of the finest 18th century buildings in New England.  Medford is also home to the Peter Tufts House,  one of the oldest all-brick buildings in the country, and the Brooks Estate, a 50 acre Victorian summer retreat.

“Of the People” Lecture Series

In conjunction with the Of the People exhibit, the MHS is offering a series of lectures:

“African-American Soldiers in the Civil War”

Lecture by Michael Chesson

Friday, March 20, 7:30 pm

At The West Medford Community Center (111 Arlington Street)

“Fort Warren in the Civil War”

Lecture by Jay Schmidt

Tuesday, March 31, 7:30 pm

At The Royall House (15 George Street)

“I’ll Pass for your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War”

Lecture by Anita Silvey

Wednesday, April 22, 7:00 pm

At the Medford Public Library (111 High Street)


Jim Kiely –

Barbara Kerr – 781-395-7950

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