Like most people, when I visited Appomattox Court House I was mainly interested in seeing the McLean House. The tiny parlor looked much as it did on that day in April 1865, or at least the way it looked in the painting I recall from my fourth-grade textbook.
But the appearance is a little deceptive. That photo doesn’t show the actual table where Lee sat, and its oval counterpart on the other side of the room isn’t the table used by Grant. In fact, the entire room is something of a replica. The McLean House had quite an eventful career after the two generals left. Purchased by speculators intent on turning it into a museum, it was dismantled in 1893 and then rebuilt after World War II. What you see is basically a reconstruction using original materials.
I knew this when I walked inside, and presumably most other visitors do too, since NPS signage explains the structure’s complicated history. But I still wanted to go inside and be in that room, and once I was in there I forgot all about the fact that it’s sort of like an illusion. All historic house museums collaborate with their visitors in this game of make-believe. The museums use furnishings and paint to mask the building’s post-historical afterlife, and visitors suspend their disbelief and take the restoration for the way it actually was.
Or at least we hope they’re suspending their disbelief. Some visitors, no doubt, assume when they visit historic buildings that the people who lived or worked there just walked off and left it intact, right down to the candlesticks, and there it sat like a hermetically sealed time capsule down through the decades until the tour guides came in and laid down carpet runners and velvet ropes. Interpreters must walk a fine line between two opposing responsibilities, maintaining the illusion while explaining its boundaries at the same time.