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Exhibit displayed at Smithsonian
By SARA NEWMAN
Three rising seniors at Huntingtown High School were selected to represent the state of Maryland at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on June 12 as part of National History Day.
More than 19,000 students in grades 6 through 12 participated in the contest at the classroom level, with 542 students advancing to the state contest and 59 students making it to National History Day on June 11th, according to Auni Gelles, a program assistant at the Maryland Humanities Council and National History Day representative.
The exhibit by Christiana Nisbet, 17, Laura Osborne, 17, and Christine Ims, 17, was chosen because of the local subject matter and thorough research the team conducted. Their topic, “The Battle of Antietam,” explored the historic battle’s importance in the Civil War as a turning point in history, which was the theme of this year’s contest, Nisbet said.
Though Nisbet, Osborne and Ims’ project did not place, they joined contestants from all 50 states at the Smithsonian to represent their state and exhibit at the one-day June 12 event. The event was open to the public, and participants demonstrated their expertise as visitors from all over the world examined the exhibitions and asked questions. About 3,000 students and families from across the country came to the Smithsonian to interact with each other and the public, according to Kim Fortney, deputy director of National History Day.
“We fell in love with the battlefield and the history of it,” Nisbet said of choosing the Battle of Antietam for their project. “You come away with something every single time. We felt secure in our choice of what we wanted to represent.”
The Battle of Antietam took place Sept. 17, 1862, on Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg. Known as the “bloodiest single day in American History,” the battle claimed the lives of 23,100 men who were wounded, killed or missing in action after the Union and Confederate armies collided, according to the Antietam National Battlefield park website.
The battle served as a turning point in the Civil War for many reasons, Nisbet said. It marked the end of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North, and the Union victory provided the justification President Abraham Lincoln used for announcing his Emancipation Proclamation. That act, along with its immense effect on American history and race relations, prevented the British Empire, with the public’s strong anti-slavery beliefs, from recognizing the confederacy as a legitimate government, Nisbet said.
Nisbet said she and her teammates visited the battlefield “three or four” times between October, when they began their project, and April. The exhibit contained three components: a display board illustrating the turning points of the battle, a video the girls created that took viewers around the battlefield itself and a model replica of the “bloody lane,” which was the sunken road in which many soldiers were trapped and killed, resulting in it becoming the bloodiest part of the battlefield, Nisbet said.
“They were thrilled they got to spend the day at the Smithsonian Museum with participants from all 50 states,” Janice Nisbet, Christiana’s mother, said.
Christiana Nisbet said she and her teammates received help conducting research and preparing for interviews from their history teacher, Jeffrey Cunningham, along with their parents. The staff and volunteers at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum also helped the girls’ with research and “how we wanted to go about this project,” Christiana Nisbet said. While all three girls were nervous about presenting their exhibit, as athletes and avid soccer players, she said adrenaline took over and the information became second nature.
“You learn so much,” Christiana Nisbet said, “from conducting research to writing papers to presenting the project and challenging yourself at a college level. You’re talking with academics who are so knowledgeable about the topic that it’s an eye-opening experience.”
On July 30, the girls were invited by the office of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to tour a new Civil War exhibit at the Library of Congress. The group included students, teachers, historians, curators, Cardin and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) as well as Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), Donna Edwards (D-Md., 4th) and Christopher Van Holen (D-Md., 8th), to discuss the importance of history and passing on the love of history to the next generation.
“It’s clear that they truly care about [their exhibit],” said Gelles, who spent time with the girls during the Smithsonian showcase and with Christiana Nisbet at the Library of Congress.
“Personally, [their exhibit] is unique because we do get a good amount of military history topics, but they’re not often done by girls,” Gelles said. “It was refreshing that these articulate young women were talking about Antietam and Maryland’s role in U.S. history.”
Gelles said participating in National History Day prepares students for academic success in the long term, and has been shown to help students succeed in every subject, not just history. She said the opportunity the girls received from displaying their work at the Smithsonian is invaluable for their resumes and college applications.
With plans to study political science and history in college, Christiana Nisbet said she would recommend to anyone to participate in National History Day.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” she said.