My trip to Gettysburg this week began at the new Visitor Center. I spent roughly 2 hours between the movie and exhibit hall. The first thing you will notice is the amount of space that is available. This stands in stark contrast to the old building which was quite cramped and very dingy. The extra space allows for groups to meet as well as other types of events to be organized when necessary. The building is easy to navigate and is an overall improvement to the old building.
My first stop was the movie, “A New Birth of Freedom” which came with a ticket price of $8 and lasted about twenty minutes. Before proceeding I should say that I did not approach this Visitor Center as a Gettysburg buff or as someone who is well versed in the literature. I did my best to take the perspective of someone who knows very little about the Civil War and/or Gettysburg, and as an educator who cares deeply about the role that history can play in our civic life and in effectively communicating that history to as wide a range of visitors as possible.
Readers of this blog will probably not be surprised to hear that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. It effectively introduces and explains the main issues behind the war, how the war evolved by the time of the battle, and how the outcome contributed to the rest of American history. It is meant to provoke thought and give the viewer a clear sense of why this battlefield is important. The VC was busy as soon as it opened, which suggests that people are eager to learn something and make some kind of connection. Perhaps the NPS should explain that the movie is not a detailed tactical overview of the battle, but that would imply that the local themes of the battle and broader themes of national significance are not inextricably connected and worth consideration.
From there I headed on over to the exhibit, which is organized into 12 sections beginning with the causes of the war and ending with battlefield preservation. Each room has a theme which is connected to a snippet from the “Gettysburg Address”. So, for instance, the room on the campaign into Pennsylvania is titled, “Testing whether that nation can long endure” and the room on the period between 1863-1865 is titled, “The great task remaining before us.” There is a great deal to see and those who have limited time should pick and choose the rooms they spend the most time in. You can access various rooms through a hallway which makes navigation easier.
The most important test for any historical exhibit is whether its visitors are moving quickly or are taking the time to read and discuss. Perhaps others have had a different experience, but I was impressed by the fact that people were reading, listening to videos, or just talking about what they were seeing. The first room includes a movie on slavery. The benches were packed and the walls were lined with additional viewers. I do think that by the end many were burned out, but this is perhaps a reason to emphasize that visitors should consider picking and choosing. The battle itself, along with Lincoln’s visit are prominently featured at the center of the exhibit and laid out in four separate rooms. Each day of the battle is treated separately and if you missed the tactical detail in the earlier movie there are three separate films that lay it all out for you. There are even interactive exhibits that allow you to find the location and vital statistics on every Union and Confederate regiment that fought at Gettysburg. Beyond the military emphasis the rooms also discuss the civilian experience of both black and white residents of Gettysburg as well as the aftermath of battle. There are two additional mini theaters that focus on the voices of battle where you can sit and listen to individual experiences.
One of the big complaints that I’ve read over and over in recent days is the lack of artifacts. Simply put, there are plenty of artifacts to look at; in fact, the experience is overwhelming. Perhaps critics mean not enough weapons on display, but even here I was quite satisfied. No, apart from a number of panels outside the main theater, which display a large collection of weapons and ordnance, the exhibit hall is not packed, but that seems to me to be a rather narrow understanding of what counts as an artifact. To be honest, I never understood the purpose of the row upon row of weapons at the old VC and I am willing to speculate that unless you focus specifically on such things most visitors will not be able to appreciate the degree of difference between two types of rifles. What I appreciated about the exhibit was the emphasis on placing objects such as rifles in a certain context. For instance, a number of rifles are featured in a display on the evolution from civilian to soldier and in an adjacent display laying out the basic features of the Union and Confederate uniform. In that setting the weapon takes on a significance that it simply doesn’t have in a case along with hundreds of other weapons. Exhibit organizers made a conscious effort to use the weapons to tell stories and that helps with building identification/empathy between the visitor and the men who carried these weapons.
I spent some time in a room devoted to Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” which includes a reading by Sam Waterston. Once again I struck up a conversation with a gentleman about my age who was waiting for his wife and two kids who were still in the battle section. He said something along the lines of, “I don’t care since that is why we are here.” The final film on Reconstruction and beyond was also well done and once again I was pleasantly surprised to find about 15 people watching the movie. A college friend of mine recently took his family to Gettysburg and this is what he had to say:
We first watched the film “A New Birth of Freedom”. Which was good, but
it tried to tell the story of the Civil War in 20 minutes…but it was
a good, easy to follow introduction to the war. The museum
itself is beautiful. The displays were all interesting with very
detailed info accompanying them. The layout of the museum itself was
like being in a corn maze though. Now remember, I was with my son who
after the movie and 20 minutes in the museum was ready to go to the
hotel. So it is hard to give a real good opinion based on a quick run
through with a nine year old. We definitely plan on going back though.
We did get the CD audio tour. I cannot think of the historians name who is
on the CD. This was a wonderful way to tour the battlefield at our own
pace. We spent two full days going all over the battle field and really
soaking in the overwhelming history and suffering that took place
there. Between the Visitors Center and this tour, I learned a wealth of
new things about the Battle of Gettysburg and the war as a whole.
My only complaints about the exhibit is that it is a bit too dark and at times it is difficult to navigate from room to room. In addition, and as my friend alluded to, the exhibit is not geared to very young children. My guess is that you need to be at least 12 to appreciate much of the information provided. There are some issues with space, but I suspect that the NPS will figure out how best to utilize it as they grow more acclimated to their new digs. What is funny is that no one ever complained about the misuse of space at the old VC. The electronic map was by far the most egregious violation of this rule.
For a number of reasons the biggest complaint seems to be about the bookstore. That this has stood out as the most divisive issue is quite bizarre to me, but here is my take. First, anything that follows that old VC bookstore is going to appear a bit more Disney-like and it doesn’t help that it is privately managed. And yes, they sell a whole lot of shit. GET OVER IT! If that is your biggest complaint than you have bigger problems to deal with. As for the selection of books offered, I didn’t think it was as bad as some have suggested. For someone who is beginning their journey into the literature or even for those who have some background to the battle there is plenty to choose from. The selection is not what it used to be, but it is not as bad as some have suggested. In fact, I think there selection is broader than the Farnsworth store. I found three titles at the Gettysburg store and nothing at Farnsworth apart from overhearing a ridiculous conversation about ghosts.
In closing I want to say that I have very little patience for the small group of people that feel as if the VC has betrayed some sacred trust, as if this small group had some kind of monopoly on how to explain the battle to the general public. A few people have commented in various places that they feel “betrayed” or “lied to” by the NPS. This is absurd. The NPS’s primary responsibility is to interpret the battle for the general public and work to bring about a lasting and meaningful connection with the past for its visitors. I think they have done so brilliantly. Congratulations on a job well done and I look forward to my next visit.