Review of the Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park

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.

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12 comments… add one

  • Harry Aug 14, 2008

    Kevin,

    Thanks for the detailed reveiw – you obviously had more time to spend in the VC than did I. But I think our overall inpressions are similar.

    One thing I’ve thought about a little more is the feeling of betrayal experienced by folks, many of whom were members of the Friends of Gettysburg and now The Gettysburg Foundation. I was on the receiving end of a lot of the mailings asking for contributions to the construction of the new VC and yes, the literature did emphasize the need to preserve AND EXHIBIT the artifact collection. The massive square footage of the proposed building and exhibit areas was at least tacitly, if not explicitly, used to create the impression that more “stuff” would be displayed, and as Friends members were and are far more then casual visitors, I can see how they would think that meant more battle or military items. So, I can understand the frustration these folks feel. But as a very wise Vulcan once said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.”

  • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2008

    Harry, — Thanks for the comment. I can’t really comment on that issue since I am not a “Friend” and I haven’t seen the mailings. Still, it is hard to imagine what the addition of 50 or even 100 rifles to the displays would add to the overall goal of the museum. It seems to me that the NPS did a fantastic job of displaying a large number of artifacts that represent just about every aspect of the relevant history. What more could one ask for?

  • Harry Aug 14, 2008

    I’m not saying I agree with the rationale, just that I can understand it. Apparently some people can ask for quite a bit more (emphasis on more for the sake of more). I think they are a very vocal micro-minority, however (I got that from the create-a-buzzword template). The VC does the job it needs to do, and does it very well, IMO.

  • Jarret Aug 14, 2008

    Hey Kevin,

    Great review. I was in Gettysburg two weeks ago and I agree with everything you wrote. Simply put, the new VC blows the old one away. I was extremely pleased that they actually gave the political and social context of the war so that the average visitor could better understand the significance of the battle. I don’t understand why some people want to limit the Civil War to guns and uniform buttons. Yes, those things are important, but the battlefield and politics were directly connected, and for the average visitor to the park, I think it is imperative that they at least gain a broader perspective of what the war meant, because only then can they really appreciate why those two armies fought so brutally on that Pennsylvania field. This massive failure of American democracy, as you well put it, must be better understood in a social, political and cultural context in addition to its military significance. Also, I agree with you that if you need 500 different rifles to look at, then maybe you need to go to gun show, not the Gettysburg VC.

    - Jarret

  • Mannie Gentile Aug 14, 2008

    Kevin,

    Here’s my take, which I shared with Harry:

    http://volunteersinparks.blogspot.com/2008/07/gettysburg-visitor-center-comments.html

    (do read the comments)

    Mannie

  • matthew mckeon Aug 14, 2008

    I have to agree with your friend about the maze like feel. I went in April and there were a lot of school groups, so the exhibit area seemed jammed to me, with a lot of competing noise from videos and displays.

    There was a lot of space not being used, and the cyclorama wasn’t up yet, but I put that down to they were just getting started(outside, they were still finishing the walkways and parking lots).

    I agree with most of what you posted: the intro film was good and most of the exhibts were interesting. My 10 year old found a lot of stuff in the exhibit that interested her, so the 12 year old cutoff may not be necessarily true: younger ones may find stuff that interest them.

    A suggestion: what about “behind the scenes” tours of the masses of objects that aren’t on display for interested groups, like the “Friends” described above?

  • Sean Dail Aug 14, 2008

    Kevin,

    I refuse to get into a war of words with you, but I have to say that some of your comments misrepresent the concerns that many of us have about the new VC. And frankly I don’t see the value of insulting folks who love Gettysburg and wanted the best for it.

    Sean

  • Kevin Levin Aug 15, 2008

    Sean, — I’m sorry to hear that since I am curious as to what you think of my review. I admitted in one of my comments that I have not seen the mailings sent to the “Friends” of Gettysburg and others who were apparently promised something specific about the content of the exhibit. Still, I believe this language of betrayal is way over the top and fails to take seriously the broader mission of the NPS.

    If you ever find yourself wanting to comment on the content of my review I am all ears.

  • Sean Dail Aug 15, 2008

    Kevin,

    I received the mailings from the Foundation over and over again, but did not respond to them because I thought they were a little unseemly to begin with, and frankly I didn’t place much faith in them. However, from the very beginning of the push to build the new VC, my recollection is that the public was told that one of the primary objectives was to provide more a more suitable environment for the exhibition and preservation of the Rosensteel Collection. Later, as word got out what the true plans, many people began to feel as if they were the vitims of the old “bait and switch.” That is probably what folks mean when they talk about betrayal.

    I am in the middle of a serious family illness right now, but at some point I may try to locate some of the comments the NPS made when it first began the push for the VC. I’m interested to see how closely they conform to my recollections.

    As for the content of your review, you are certainly entitled to a positive opinion of the VC – you are surely in the majority. I just don’t think it is fair to label genuinely held feelings as bizarre and absurd without making more of an effort to understand them. You approach the VC as an educator; I approach it as someone who wants to see the men who fought and died at Gettysburg honored appropriately. I don’t find a big, over-commercialized palace with a glorified tourist trap for a museum store the appropriate way of doing that.

    I also have issues with the way the exhibit is laid out, some of which you touched on. I found the exhibit cramped, poorly-lit, and difficult to navigate on a day when there is moderately heavy visitation. I see a lot of wasted space in the entry area and hallways that might have been used to make the exhibits less stifling. I had less trouble with the actual content of the exhibits, though if one wants to use the place simply to orient themselves to battlefield, one has to wade through a lot of material in order to find the battle itself. I would have preferred to see a separate film or presentation to “replace” the Electric Map, which many folks used to orient themselves to what they were going to see once they went out on the field itself. Frankly, I would have liked to see an updated version of the map itself, which the powers that be decided was “outdated.”

    Perhaps when I have more time, I will have more to say.

    Sean

  • Kevin Levin Aug 15, 2008

    Sean, — Thanks for the follow-up and I wish you and your family all the best during this difficult time. You are probably correct that my choice of words is unfair, but it does seem odd to reduce the museum to the Rosensteel Collection. Admittedly, I am unfamiliar with the politics of all of this, but I assume that the Foundation is different from the NPS and I can’t speak to their relationship. I was talking to a historian who teaches a course on museum studies and she said that most museums only have room to exhibit roughly 10 percent of their collection. Perhaps they could have displayed more from the collection, but I fail to see how this adds to our understanding of the battle or in building all important connection for the visitor.

    Yes, I do approach the exhibit as an educator, but I also want to see the men honored and I think the exhibit goes further than anything I’ve seen in re: to that goal. Finally, I just don’t see this as an overly-commercialized palace. Obviously, we will have to agree to disagree.

    Thanks again for the comment and take care.

  • Lizzie Dietzen Aug 16, 2008

    Kevin,

    Thank you for your kind review of the new VC. As a seasonal ranger at Gettysburg, I have personally experienced a variety of opinions concerning the new facility.

    If I may put forth my own opinion, the new museum blows the old one out of the water. The new museum aims to put Gettysburg in the context of the Civil War, which is critical for a visitor who is not familiar with the background of the conflict. My personal view is that the old museum “explained” solely the Battle of Gettysburg but failed to discuss how the armies reached that point, or what happened after the armies left Gettysburg.

    Kevin, I agree with you in that most of the disgruntled opinions deal with the absence of artifacts, and that simply should not be a concern. Artifacts are EVERYWHERE and I think much of the hatred of the new museum lies within the absense of all the “guns.” Rows upon rows of guns are useless in trying to effectively interpret the battle or educate the visitor.

    Should anyone feel slighted at the absence of particular artifacts, an appointment can always be made with the museum curator or archivist for a free viewing.

    As for the logistics of the museum (ie, crowd control, lighting, etc) those problems are being addressed as they arise. Remember, we opened on April 14 and the runnings of the place are still a work in progress until the grand opening in late September.

    Though the museum can be over the head of certain age groups, we do offer separate activities for children from ages 6-13. The Junior Ranger Program and the “Join the Army!” program are key examples of our desire to reach every age group possible.

    The film is superb but it does not replace the electric map. The film effectively introduces the social, political, and economic contingincies before and throughout the conflict. In the museum galleries, for those who are displeased with the absense of a solid military analysis, visitors can encounter 9 free films with 3 of those films centering on the tactical and military logistics of July 1, 2, and 3.

    Overall, the new facility is much more gratifying to work in. I think visitors come away with not only a better understanding of Gettysburg, but also the war itself which is critical in our crusade to educate. Should the visitors come away with anything less, we have failed as interpreters to do our job.

    I speak solely based on my own opinions and experiences and not on behalf of the NPS.

    Thanks,
    Lizzie

  • Kevin Levin Aug 17, 2008

    Lizzie, — Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your perspective given your connection to the battlefield. I assume that you worked with Professor Carmichael when he was at UNCG; if I had it all to do over again I would go the public history route in a program just like yours. Good luck.

    I was perhaps a bit short with the crowd that is disappointed in the layout and content of the new VC. That said, I have yet to see an argument put forward showing how the display of a larger selection of the Rosensteel Collection would add to the interpretive mission of the exhibit. It would satisfy those who have a specific interest in such things, but it wouldn’t help at all the overwhelming majority of visitors who have little understanding of the battle or the broader issues of the war itself.

    I hope you will share your thoughts in the future, especially on those posts dealing with issues in your field.

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