Inside the Immersive Theater’s Civil War Field Hospital

Marist School’s Goizueta Center for Immersive Experience and Design is home to the Immersive Theater which rotates interactive exhibits to broaden student perspectives, enhance understanding of other cultures, and build the capacity for empathy, an essential Marist value preparing students to be global-ready servant leaders of tomorrow. Within the Immersive Theater’s glass walls, the opportunities to broaden the perspectives of our students and build the compassion required to do the work of Mary continued this year with the recent Civil War Field Hospital exhibit. Over 240 students in grades 9-12 recently visited the Immersive Theater to participate.
Social studies teacher and recipient of Marist’s 2022-2023 MacGinnitie Award for Innovation Dr. Nic Hoffmann ’03 conceptualized the cross-curricular Civil War Field Hospital exhibit to engage students in the experience of war and historical surgical practices. Employing his doctoral degree in 19th century American history with a focus on the history of science and medicine, Dr. Hoffmann obtained medical records of four soldiers who underwent surgery in field hospitals during the U.S. Civil War. To transform the Immersive Theater into a battlefield hospital in which students could reenact these surgeries, Dr. Hoffmann worked with fellow faculty members Mrs. Jillian Bauersfeld, Marist dance company director whose master’s degree is in immersive theater for community engagement and social change, and Mrs. Kelly Mandy, director of global and humane studies at Marist School.

When students, faculty, and staff arrived in the Immersive Theater to participate in the exhibit, they ducked beneath cut sheets draped across the ceiling as a make-shift tent. A smoke machine created a hazy view through the deep red lights overhead, historical case photos of Civil War injuries appeared in loop on the projector screen, and the sounds of canon fire played under Dr. Hoffmann’s introductory remarks. Setting the stage for students enrolled in advanced placement U.S. history, American literature and composition, American experiment, Civil War seminar, U.S. history, and honors biology, Dr. Hoffmann lectured on the dim realities of patients facing treatment in the provisional medical tents of America’s bloodiest conflict. As part of the exercise, students volunteered to portray the injured soldier, nurses, or surgeons to reenact real surgeries endured during the war.

"Studying medical history is an opportunity to allow students to relate to the past in a way they otherwise wouldn't," Dr. Hoffmann said. "It is a very humanizing experience to relate to the people that were there at the time. Medicine provides us with hope, but it usually comes at times of great stress. This activity was designed to present both sides of that stress and panic, but with the hope of relief."

After the reenactment, students viewed a virtual and augmented reality segment using VR headsets and toured a panel series about Clara Barton on loan to Marist School from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland.

Mrs. Bauersfeld assisted in the visual creation of the exhibit “to help expose our students and community to an immersive and creative way of experiencing the Civil War medical experience. The goal with any immersive exhibit is to educate and evoke empathy, and I believe this experience has achieved that.”

This unique learning opportunity is a cornerstone of Marist School’s global and humane studies program, which includes those areas of learning that focus on the world in which we live and how students can make a positive impact through service to others. Through their participation in the Civil War Field Hospital exhibit, students felt the shock of war and bleak realities of the medical practices implemented at that time in a way that humanized the battlefield beyond just the numbers.

At the conclusion of the exhibit, Mrs. Mandy reflected, "The students were completely engaged and took their roles very seriously. They were conscientious as to how they were supposed to operate to ensure a successful outcome." She is hopeful that students have learned that when they hear numbers of deaths or casualties in a war or conflict, "they will understand how each of those numbers is connected to an actual life."

It is through this kind of innovative and cross-curricular experience that the Immersive Theater serves as an epicenter for student empathy-building exercises. The Civil War Field Hospital exhibit and other Immersive Theater initiatives build compassion in Marist students, which prepares them to step beyond the classroom, connect with people from all walks of life, and share what they have learned with the world.

The next immersive exhibit on the Saint John's Bible will run from January 23-February 3, 2023. To tour and view photos of previous exhibits, follow these links to the Church History Pentecost Tent, the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Mexican art exhibit with hands-on crafts and activities, the magical German Christmas market with virtual reality tour, the “The Incarnation is a Mystery to be Explored” exhibit which grew with student participation, the interdisciplinary and experiential examination of the Harlem Renaissance, and the dance installation that explored movement. View photos of the Civil War Field Hospital exhibit here.

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An Independent Catholic School of the Marist Fathers and Brothers