Gettysburg National Military Park Holds Public Forum

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When the GNMP and Gettysburg Foundation announced plans to hold a public forum
to discuss the proposed entrance fee I was skeptical.  I anticipated a meeting that would do little more than give certain interest groups a chance to voice frustrations that have been building over time and which would fail to address the financial situation at hand.  The new Visitor Center has not met its financial mark thus far and as a result VC officials have proposed a flat fee of $7.50 for the museum, Cyclorama, and feature film.  Well, the meeting seems to have played out just as I had anticipated.  All of the major players were in attendance, but they failed to offer nothing but non-constructive criticism:

Gene Golden, businessman: At a salary of $392,735, it would take 52,364 people paying $7.50 just to pay (Gettysburg Foundation President) Bob Wilburn’s salary.  Franklin Silbey: If anyone here believes that the decision hasn’t been made, you’re naive.  Nothing that anyone says here tonight will change their decision. How many promises have
they made and now broken?

Bob Monahan, Jr., developer whose own proposal for a VC was rejected: The whole concept was that there wasn’t to be one cent of taxpayer money used to fund anything. Two reasons were given to me why my proposal wasn’t selected — I was proposing a $3 fee to see portions of the museum, and my project was $40 million, which I thought was reasonable at the time. Now look at the costs.

Eric Uberman, Gettysburg Businessman: There is a lot of reason for skepticism when it has to do with money within these walls. We were sold on no commercialism or tax dollars, but as Dr. Latschar has said, that is no longer true. We also had Mr. Kinsley stand up before Congress and say that this was his gift to America — it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Jones: The film is very good, but it is no substitute for the Electric Map.

I appreciate the fact that various parties are disappointed in this development, but at the same time it is a problem that needs a solution.  In the end the proposal is very reasonable.  The overwhelming majority of families will not mind paying the fee given that many other historical sites charge a fee – some coming with a much higher price attached.  It’s hard not to interpret much of the outcry as simply a question of whether an entrance fee ought to be charged.  Some are still fuming over the dismantling of the outdated Electric Map while others are disappointed in the content of the new film, gift shop, and museum exhibit.

My recent visit to Gettysburg reignited my interest in the battle and I hope to return on a more regular basis in the future.  I have no problem with the entrance fee and will gladly pay it.  In fact, I think it is a real bargain.

Click here for my review of the new Visitor Center.

16 comments… add one

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 20, 2008

    I come at this from a different perspective.

    In the eyes of some people, the NPS can’t do anything right. Some people are mad about the destruction of the old VC; others cherish memories of the Electric Map to the point that it’s nostalgia, pure and simple; some people are mad about the bookstore at the new VC, or tha cafeteria, or the potential to take visitors away from Steinwehr Avenue; some people just don’t like the museum, for one reason or another; and people simply don’t want to pay for what they once saw for free (although one did pay to see the Electric Map … remember?). Frustrated rival developers, people with a love/hate relationship with what Gettysburg is, and so on are going to continue to stir the pot.

    I don’t have a lot of sympathy with most of these positions, although I have some empathy with them. The new VC is a marked improvement over its predecessor; the functions of the Electric Map are better served in other ways, including displays at the VC explaining each day of the battle; I applaud returning the terrain to its wartime appearance where possible and reasonable; I think the merchants on Steinwehr should rethink their position (and some of them should rethink what they sell). For example, they do a horrible job of providing for parking there.

    That said, John Latscher is to these people what Bill Clinton was to certain Republicans, because he’s fed their criticisms. He’s not always approachable; he can be sarcastic; he’s made promises and created expectations that he won’t be able to meet; he doesn’t even always work well with the middle ground. I sent him a friendly suggestion about this proposal by e-mail, and never heard a word. That’s stupid, and that’s arrogant. In short, the NPS at Gettysburg may be its own worst enemy in these controversies, because its actions sometimes feed its critics. Whatever you think about the merits of the people you quoted, Kevin, nearly every word they said in what you quoted is on the mark. I suspect we’d find more common ground in offering observations on what else they said or why they were saying it.

    It’s a troubled relationship, and it will continue to be troubled. Gettysburg remains contested ground.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 20, 2008

    Brooks, — Thanks for the comment. We are pretty much in agreement, although I don’t see as much merit in the statements quoted as you do. The more I read about this issue the more I realize that it is very personal for many, perhaps including Latschar. Than again, I have no doubt that the fault lines within Gettysburg reflect differences that have their own history. I look forward to exploring this in my essay for the collection.

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 20, 2008

    The comments I’d highlight, Kevin, involve broken promises (mistaken forecasts?) about costs, etc. People forget that there was a charge for the Electric Map and for the Cyclorama. And, no, as fond as I was of the retro electric map, I thought the three mini-theaters did a fine job of relaying the events of the battle for their primary intended audience.

    If you Google the names of the people you quote from the article, you can see that they’ve always been unhappy campers, and they aren’t always candid about their own interests. You’ll find a supporter of the infamous Tower, for example; there’s an opponents of restoring the look of the battlefield as well. The problem is that their charges, as quoted, are true, but the charges themselves tell only part of the story. A little looking will reveal that the people attacking Latschar are not exactly agenda-free. On other issues I side with the NPS.

    Again, I just think the NPS needs to consider not so much what it is doing as how it does it, although I suspect that some people will never be happy. Of course, the critics have no alternatives: they are just bemoaning their own failure to get a bigger piece of the pie.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 20, 2008

    Brooks, — Thanks for the idea of Googling the list of names cited in the post.

  • Paul Taylor Sep 20, 2008

    Kevin,

    In reading the Evening Sun article that you linked to, I found it quite revealing that the $8, 22-minute “New Birth of Freedom” video has failed to attract anywhere near the number of patrons initially expected. If I remember correctly, only one in four or five were paying to see it. From a marketing perspective, I’m not surprised. Visitors like you and I will gladly fork over the 8 bucks without hesitation, however the NPS has seemingly made it clear that serious students of the Civil War are NOT its target market. Instead, as one ranger put it, the vast majority of visitors are those for whom a trip to Gettysburg will be their one-time immersion in Civil War history. Expecting Joe and Jane Six-Pack, as well as their kids, to pay $8 each for a 22-minute film may be over-the-top pricing, considering that’s what they’d pay for a 2 1/2-hour blockbuster at the local cineplex.

    Is there more to it? Is it possible that, despite what the NPS says, most visitors come to Gettysburgsimply to see and tred on hallowed ground, to marvel at the monuments, and to learn a little about the battle itself? Is it possible that they do not want to pay $8 per person to hear all about the war’s contextual nuances that the modern NPS insists on giving them?

    Paul

  • Kevin Levin Sep 20, 2008

    You may be right that most visitors simply want to tred on hallowed ground w/o stopping at the VC. Still, it seems to me that the NPS has a responsibility to educate those who will stop at the VC and if that involves a film like “New Birth of Freedom” than so be it. As I’ve said before, $8 does not seem like a steep price given what it will cover. Perhaps the fee will force certain families to make some sacrifices while staying Gettysburg. Perhaps they won’t be able to purchase some of the crap on Steinwehr Avenue.

    Actually, it seems to me that before we draw any conclusions about what the proposed price of admission will do for the average family that we should consult some hard and fast statistics.

    Thanks Paul

  • Sean Dail Sep 21, 2008

    Paul makes a very good point – the new VC isn’t designed to appeal to many serious Civil War students, and yet it is priced too high for casual visitors. Just one more flaw in the whole plan. However, as much as I dislike the new VC, I don’t take much solace in this latest turn of events. We’re going to end up with one more really expensive failure that can’t be fixed.

    The only good thing that may come of all this is that perhaps other major battlefields will not be subjected to this kind of public/private partnership. It’s not a good way of commemeorating the sacrifices made by Civil War soldiers.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 21, 2008

    Sean, — I don’t know what to say to your first statement other than to point out that I do consider myself to be a serious student of the Civil War, and I find the museum to be quite sophisticated.

    Perhaps the VC is priced too high, but relative to what in the G-burg area? Does it mean that families won’t be able to see the wax museum or go on a ghost tour? I’ve heard from many that the proposed fee is too high, but I have not seen any statistics or reports to justify the concern. You may in fact be right, but I would like to see some evidence.

    Finally, I think the museum does a great job fo commemorating the sacrifices of the soldiers and beyond.

  • Bob Pollock Sep 21, 2008

    First, I want to note that I have not been to Gettysburg since 2004, so I can’t comment on what has been done there. I do want to make two points here though.
    One) re: “the war’s contextual nuances that the modern NPS insists on giving” visitors. – The NPS was directed by Congressional legislation to expand the scope of interpretation at all Civil War battlefields to include discussions of slavery as a root cause of the war. This has been controversial not just with the public, but within the NPS as well.
    Two) The NPS operates on very limited budgets at most parks and is therefore heavily dependent on private “friends” groups. If we don’t want to see public/private partnerships, we either have to pay at the door or insist that our legislators direct more of our tax dollars to the NPS.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 21, 2008

    Bob, — Thanks for the comment. First, I agree with your second point. As to your first point, I think it is important to remember that although Congress charged the NPS with expanding its interpretation in the way described back in 2000 these debates have actually been part of NPS culture going back at least to the 1930s. The attention to Jesse Jackson’s legislation tends to overshadow this fact. In my own research on the Crater I noticed various internal debates within the NPS beginning in the 1930s and increasing in scope from the 1960s onward.

  • Sean Dail Sep 21, 2008

    Kevin,

    I was not for a minute suggesting that you are not a serious student of the war. Having said that, “sophisticated” is certainly not a word that I would apply to the VC. I can’t believe you learned very much during your time in those exhibits.

    My point was that serious students will spend serious money for something they love; the general public’s interest is often fleeting, and $8 is far too much for them to spend on a 20-minute film. The proof of that is the numbers trotted out by the NPS to justify their proposal.

    I share your disdain for the ghost tours, etc., but at $8 a head some families might actually opt for the sillier stuff and forego the history lesson. To the extent that the NPS/Gettysburg Foundation drives them to make that decision, they have failed miserably in their mission.

    On the issue of appropriate commemoration, I frankly don’t think any enterprise whose primary purpose is to make money rather than to teach is appropriate on NPS battlefield land. I am willing to make exceptions when the commerce is handled discreetly, but that gift shop and food court are stains on the landscape.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2008

    Sean, — Commemoration and capitalism have been intertwined on that battlefield since the beginning. I would highly recommend that you read Jim Weeks’s book on the subject. We are too far along to think that these two strands can be understood exclusively in relationship to how Americans have chosen over the years to both sell and consume Gettysburg.

    I agree with you that $8 may too steep a price, but that price would cover the entire museum, which seems to me to be quite fair. By the way, how much was the Electric Map by the time it was dismantled? Finally, I am sorry you find it so difficult to appreciate that someone in my position found the museum to be quite educational. There were objects that I’ve never seen before and stories that were new to me. I found the section on memory to be quite interesting.

    Let me say again that I think this exhibit is the most sophisticated presentation of the Civil War that I’ve ever seen.

  • Sean Dail Sep 22, 2008

    Bob – my comment about public/private partnerships was not in any way directed at Friends groups, which are essential to the preservation of battlefields in today’s world. I was referring specifically to the Gettysburg Foundation model, which I hope does not spread to other battlefields.

    Kevin – the fact that capitalism has always been tied to Gettysburg is something we’re reminded of each time we visit. But we’ve been making progress recently in removing it from much of the battlefield – the Gettysburg Tower coming down, the razing of the Home Sweet Home Motel, etc. I find those improvements diminished by what we now have for a visitor center.

    I’m glad that you found the new museum educational. Perhaps I am wrong about the number of serious students who won’t get much out of it. If so, then all the better. I don’t remember what the cost of the Electric Map was, but I doubt it was close to $8. I think it would make much more sense to simply lower the charge for the film to $4 or $5 and see if things don’t improve overnight…perhaps even to a level they can live with…

  • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2008

    Sean, — You may be right that reducing the cost to $4 or $5 would do the trick. I must assume that the folks in charge discussed such an option. Who knows. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily see the removal of the Tower and other recent steps as a shot at the all-mighty dollar. It is another nod at the goals of Heritage Tourism which emphasize the value of individual experience through empathetic identification with the past, which is hard to do when you are staring at at Tower.

  • Jenny Sep 23, 2008

    The Electric Map was $3 for an adult. Don’t recall if they had a student or child rate.

    “What will fees to the public be under the proposal? The visitor center and new museum, the major orientation and interpretive programs of the facility, would be free. The current interpretive fees charged for the Electric Map and Cyclorama programs would continue, at their current levels ($3.00 for an adult). The only new interpretive fee would be for the film, and is estimated at $4.00 for an adult. There would be no charge for parking.”

    Lots of information on the planning aspects as discussed in 1998-1999 here:

    http://www.nps.gov/archive/gett/gettplan/gmparchive.htm

  • Kevin Levin Sep 23, 2008

    Jenny, — Thanks so much for passing that along. Hope you are doing well and running.

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