Gettysburg museum depicts battle scenes with unique figures

FELINE FIGURES - Rebecca Brown makes an adjustment to a diorama in which tiny handmade cat figures depict Pickett's Charge. It is one of many Civil War scenes on display in the new family-oriented Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum that she and her sister Ruth Brown are opening in Gettysburg this weekend. (Jim Hale/Gettysburg Times)

A new museum in Gettysburg deploys thousands of handmade cat figurines in carefully researched battle scenes in hope of sparking kids' interest in the Civil War.

About 7,000 figures are on display, said Rebecca Brown, who is opening Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum this weekend with her twin sister Ruth Brown.

The museum is at 783-785 Baltimore St., in a building that began as a dormitory for the National Homestead, a home for soldiers' orphans that was established after the Battle of Gettysburg. The structure later served as a hotel called The Homestead.

Families are the museum's intended audience. "We hope to get every kid, especially from about 9 to 11 years old, interested in the Civil War" and history in general, Rebecca said. Gentle touching of the exhibits is permitted, she said, and information about the scenes and how they fit into the timeline of the war is posted at a kid-friendly height.

She said she hopes that soldiers' stories will show kids that heroism resides in everyday people, and that kids' own lives can expand far beyond being "on Facebook all the time."

The dioramas depict scenes ranging from fighting on Little Round Top here to the battle of the Union and Confederate ironclad ships the Monitor and the Merrimac.

Rebecca's favorite shows the culmination of Pickett's Charge at the Angle, a scene which is approximately six by eight feet. Among tiny trees, fences, and horses made by the sisters, blue-uniformed cats stand in line while hundreds of gray-clad ones lie on the ground. The sheer numbers make a surprising impression.

"They're cats, but you still think of the men and the homes they left behind," Rebecca said Thursday.

The sisters bring careful research to their dioramas. For example, Rebecca said they attempt to show the right number of figures per scale-foot of battle line. The figures range in height from three-quarters of an inch to 2 inches.

The sisters also go so far as to consult period photographs to ensure that famous individuals' facial hairstyles are portrayed correctly. Rebecca described the care she takes to paint the correct insignia on tiny hats.

Fashioning the cats from clay "has been our hobby for the last 20 years," Rebecca said. The sisters have loved cats since their childhood in the Philadelphia suburbs, and when they fell in love with Civil War history, the two affinities merged. "But we never thought it would take off the way it did," she said.

Some of the other dioramas show Meade's Headquarters here and Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the war were fired.

Even more are in the works, including one showing the war's final surrender at Appomattox and another depicting the infamous Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp, where Rebecca said the step-brother of one of her ancestors was held.

She began researching Andersonville when she and Ruth were students at Messiah College, both majoring in English with an emphasis on writing. Rebecca also studied business administration, and Ruth entered pre-law. Rebecca now works at a local hotel, and Ruth practices law in town.

The museum's opening is the dioramas' public debut. Previously, the sisters have only presented their work to some home-schooled students and at a retirement community where Rebecca worked. The reception the dioramas received helped nurture the dream of displaying them in a museum, she said.

The two knew Gettysburg well, having travelled here for numerous re-enactments. "I lost track after about twelve trips," Rebecca said. They moved to the Homestead building in April of 2013, just a few weeks after Rebecca happened by chance to see that the building was for sale, and had the right zoning for a museum. "It was too tempting to pass up," Rebecca said, though floor supports had to be improved and handicapped-accessible restroom facilities had to be added in order to meet code.

Regular hours for the museum will be from 3 to 8 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays; 1 to 8 p.m. on Fridays; and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays. The museum is closed on Sundays and Wednesdays. Extended hours are planned over the Labor Day weekend. Admission is $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for kids ages 6 to 12, and free for kids 5 and under. T-shirts and other merchandise are available.

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