What Should Be Done With the Electric Map at Gettysburg?

So, I’ve been reading about the plans of the National Park Service at Gettysburg to shut the lights out permanently on the electronic battlefield map that has been used since 1973 to introduce visitors to the broad contours of the battle.  Since I only visited Gettysburg for the first time in the mid-1990s I am not holding onto any sentimental feelings that go back to family vacations.  I do understand and appreciate those people that are holding onto such memories and I especially appreciate the desire on the part of the exhibit designer’s family to see it preserved.  I agree that it is an effective teaching tool, but that can easily be accomplished, and can no doubt be done more effectively, with today’s technology.  What I don’t understand is why people are so surprised by this decision.  Did anyone really believe that room would be made for this exhibit in a brand new visitor center?  More to the point, given the limited budget that the NPS works with and the ways in which available funds could be applied it would seem to me to be irresponsible to save it.  Does anyone have a figure on how much it will cost to store it properly beyond plans to cut it up into small pieces and store it in a barn?

The website created to pressure the NPS doesn’t offer any suggestions whatsoever and instead takes a personal shot at Superintendent, John Latschar.  Actually, he’s right on the money, “It’s 100% antiquated.”  He went on to say in a recent interview that, “From an architectural standpoint, it takes up an immense amount of space and we have consistent problems with school kids falling asleep.”  Let’s get real, this is not a “national icon” but an exhibit whose time has come and gone.  I do think, however, that there is a great deal of significance that can be attached to the exhibit in terms of the history of how the battle has been interpreted and remembered by the NPS.

Click here for an overview of the new visitor center.

10 comments… add one
  • Jenny Apr 7, 2008 @ 8:57

    I *think* I saw the Electric Map once. I can’t really remember. But seeing the Map Room, I think my dad may have took us once to see it. My real memory of it is the constant droning of the overhead announcement: “Tickets are still available to the ____ showing of the Electric Map” as I browsed the bookstore. Anyway, why can’t they sell it or give it away? (Size?)

    (I’d say from the many tour groups I’ve passed that quite a number of kids are bored by the battlefield itself and would be asleep on the bus if not prodded out.)

  • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2008 @ 6:56

    Mannie, — Thanks for that. I think you articulated what many people are feeling right now.

  • Mannie Gentile Apr 6, 2008 @ 22:02

    I loved the electric map. I’m sorry to see it go.

    But the electric map isn’t the battlefield, it’s just a cool tourist attraction that at one time was “state of the art” in those pre transistor days.

    I like the map mostly for the map room, its a temple to buffed linoleum and “modern” systems furniture of the sort that American Seating, Herman Miller, and Steelcase pumped out of Grand Rapids for so many decades (and still do).

    I liked that room as a model of what the future looked like, at least my image of the future back in 1964. The map room is a wonderful glimpse of American design and American product of the early 1960s. I expected to see Michael Rennie and his robot ascend from a hidden ramp beneath the map.

    But that’s all just happy memories. As an educational tool for design students the maproom is wonderful. As an educational tool for a course in early electronics its outstanding.

    But as a tool for teaching large groups of people about the ebb and flow of the battle of Gettysburg, its day, alas, is long past.

    Fiber optics will replace clacking relays and hundreds of little tungsten filaments. I’ll miss the old one for my own nine-year-old-kid reasons, but, as an educator, I’ll welcome an updated replacement.

    That being said, I think I’ll go out tomorrow and hunt for some great vintage color linoleum samples.


  • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2008 @ 18:03

    Excellent point Brooks and one that I hinted at in my final comment in the post. I actually begin one of my Crater manuscript chapters by imagining what a family would have learned through visitor center and wayside exhibits in the late 1950s. It serves as an ideal point of contrast between before and after and provides a window into the evolution of how we choose to interpret battlefields.

  • Brooks Simpson Apr 6, 2008 @ 17:51

    As someone who has expressed a fondness for the old map, let me be clear: of course the explanation of the battle could be done much better by present technology. Heck, I liked the way Petersburg VC map operated, and the one I saw was not all that more sophisticated. I would not make a case for the map to be part of the new visitor’s center. But we are dealing with multiple levels of memory here … including the memory of visitors. There’s a more interesting process involved in the discussion … not only the memory of what happened here in 1863, but what happened when we visited at time A, B, and C. Ask me about the signage east of Little Round Top concerning no bus turns sometime … I helped leave a little mark on sacred soil with the help of an incompetent bus driver.

    The old Electric Map is older than the 70s, btw.

    Finally, when someone declares something to be idiotic, they might contemplate that such an ill-tempered outburst might be ranked by some readers as deserving that very characterization. Just a thought.

  • Larry Cebula Apr 6, 2008 @ 15:41

    Chris: Neat link! Any idea what software was used to create it?

  • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2008 @ 15:06

    Chris, — Thanks for the link and for reinforcing my point.

    Heather, — I would be careful in terms of using a news article to gauge Latschar’s sympathies. As for the map, it is obsolete – in other words antiquated.

  • Heather Michon Apr 6, 2008 @ 14:35

    I guess what surprises me about this story is Latschar’s tin ear. The Rosensteels are not minor collectors or contributors, and they obviously feel quite strongly about the Electric Map. To have Latschar publicly describe it as antiquated, too damn big, and a narcotic for today’s hip schoolchildren was, perhaps, not the most diplomatic way to go.

  • Charles Apr 6, 2008 @ 14:31

    I never cease to be amazed at the idiotic things people “take a stand” about.

  • chris Apr 6, 2008 @ 11:06

    Modern technology, indeed. Check this out. I don’t know why it hasn’t been done for every battle already. Perhaps the attachment to 70’s era technology…

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.