September 2013
Homeplace & Community

Alabama Voices

Speaks to 300 Years of Ag 

Interactive Exhibit to Open Early Next Year in State Archive

A multi-million dollar state exhibit opens soon in Montgomery with agriculture as the centerpiece.

It’s all part of "Alabama Voices," a $7 million, 10,000-square-foot project that is rapidly taking shape in the West Wing of the state Department of Archives and History building across the street from the Capitol.

  Left to right, Debbie Pendleton holds a sketch of what the new exhibit at the Alabama Department of Archives and History will look like when completed. Daniel Pratt’s early cotton gin will be placed in the agricultural section of the new state Department of Archives and History exhibit.

Scheduled to open early next year, the state-of-the-art exhibit will be more than a static museum where visitors stand and stare – it will have a much more interactive, dimensional feel and allow those who visit to be a more integral part of what they are seeing.

Families will have a chance to experience what it must have been like to live in Alabama before statehood and in the following decades and to use plow and mule power to plant, harvest and weigh cotton for shipment to anxious buyers around the world.

  Georgia Ann Conner tries her hand at some “indoor plowing” at the state Department of Archives and History.

The exhibit, in effect, will be a huge time machine transporting visitors back to the past – back to Alabama’s birth and growth.

"We want to tell the full range of the Alabama experience over a 300-year history, especially the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy, politics and the daily lives of Alabamians," said Archives Director Steve Murray.

The best announcement of all, perhaps, is the funding. All those millions needed for the exhibit have been provided by private donations – corporations, foundations and individuals, thus relieving taxpayers of footing the bill. Their names will be announced soon.

When visitors enter the exhibit, they will be greeted by a large diorama focusing on an agricultural scene carefully put in place on a platform.

It will contain a chronology of Alabama’s evolution including the rush for property when settlers arrived from the Carolinas looking for land.

Some were successful with plenty of help along the way while others had to settle for something much more challenging and spent decades taming the territory, Murray said.

The diorama depicts how some settlers wound up with large tracts of land perfect for cotton plantations while most persevered with smaller parcels resulting in small family farms that became the heart, soul and backbone of rural Alabama.



Clockwise from top left, Rachel Datcher, a midwife in Shelby County. Two African American girls washing laundry. Weighing cotton on Lee Street in Montgomery. Soybean crop on the farm of William Goetz in Foley. (Credit All Photos: Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery)

Murray said the exhibit doesn’t overlook Alabama’s first settlers – Indians, trappers and others who hunted, traded and lived simply off the land until railroads came along to help the state join the Industrial Revolution.

"We haven’t forgotten the forest products industry or textiles either," Murray added. "None of this would have happened without agriculture."

This buggy was traded for a car years ago, but has a new home at the state Department of Archives and History’s new exhibit that will be opening soon.  

Former Archives Director Ed Bridges, a visionary who spent 30 years as director, guided the project before his retirement last year. He knew it would take much more than money and space to bring the idea to fruition.

Teamwork, as it must be in any successful venture, was involved from the start of "Alabama Voices" which includes a collaborative effort from archaeologists, artists and fabricators to name just a few.

One of the biggest advantages of having the exhibit at the state Archives is its vast collection of all things Alabama, and Murray, who has easily assumed the role of director since Bridges’ retirement, pointed that out.

"We are able to present the experiences of Alabamians in multiple ways – through public records, private manuscripts, photographs, maps and more in addition to the artifacts visitors expect to see in a museum," he said.

The exhibit relies as much as possible on the Archives’ vast collection including more than 800 artifacts and hundreds of images. They are a small fraction of what the Archives has within its walls.

"Our goal is to tell the story in a compelling and beautiful way," said Murray, who leaves no doubt that it is being done because "this project brings together a terrific team of national talent and in-state expertise."

Debbie Pendleton, one of Murray’s top aides, is effusive in her praise for the project and lights up whenever she begins to talk about what it will be like once the final details are completed and the exhibit opens.

  This dinner bell and large tree saw will be featured in the “Alabama Voices” exhibition.

"Our young visitors will become part of a 19th century farm with visions of animals, chicken coops, cast iron pots for doing the laundry and Alabama’s red clay," she said. "We’ll have interactive items later in which rural life will be shown."

Artists who create mounts for items in the diorama are working hard to finish in time for the grand opening. Some of the unique items are housed in the basement of the Archives building, just waiting to be moved to the second floor of the West Wing.

"We have a buggy that was traded in for a 1950s car," she said, pointing to a vehicle that, in its day, was an important part of family life.

Also ready for the exhibit are old pianos, huge saw blades once used to cut trees, a plow, roll-top desks, frames and many other items that will become a part of the diorama in a few months.

One of the most striking items in the basement is a large iron scale used to hang and then weigh bales of cotton. It is believed to have come from a Weil Brothers’ cotton operation.

A family in east Alabama cleaned out a barn and found more than 50 plow handles and they’ve found their way into the exhibit, said Pendleton, who also mentioned a dugout canoe and even texture to resemble mud.

Alabama is the first state to create and expand on an Archives building that has become the envy of America. It has devoted more than a century to collecting its treasure trove of Alabama history.

PRD Group, a Virginia-based company, provided the exhibit design and relied heavily on all the Archives has to offer.

Previous projects by PRD Group included state history museums in Texas and Virginia, the American Civil War Center and other projects for the Smithsonian Institution.

Another Virginia-based firm specializing in exhibit cases, lighting systems and graphics also played an important role in the Alabama project.

D&P recently finished installing items at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum and also is working on the 9/11 Memorial in New York.

The theme of the exhibit couldn’t be unveiled in a more timely fashion given the release of a study showing the economic importance of agriculture to the state.

A lengthy study revealed agriculture and forestry contribute $70.4 billion annually to Alabama’s economy and account for 22 percent of the state’s workforce.

All the more reason for the Archive exhibit to focus on agriculture and forestry.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.