The public outcry against the NPS's proposal to charge a flat fee of $7.50 for admission into its new visitor center must be understood as part of a long-term trend within the city to attract additional dollars to the local economy. On the one hand the battlefield limits economic expansion and diversification while at the same time it does serve as a means of financial reward if marketed correctly. It's no surprise that this rub between the sacred and secular has led to bursts of protest and concern by the residents of Gettysburg and other interested parties.
One of the things that I have difficulty getting my head around is the emotional reaction to this proposed entrance fee. After all, as Brooks Simpson mentioned in a comment on yesterday's post, even in the old Visitor Center (VC) the NPS charged a fee to view the Electric Map. More on this later. The bigger issue is the question of where visitor dollars will be spent. Since the early 1970s heritage groups and other commercial interest groups have worked to reshape the city so as to be more attractive to visitors rather than as a refueling station for families on their way to Hershey Park. Stores on Main Street have been refitted with period facades, gas lamps have been installed on the streets as well as historical markers that link the downtown to the battle itself. A number of the NPS's most vocal critics have direct ties with these projects, so it is no surprise that they are concerned about additional dollars being siphoned off by the VC.
The move towards Heritage Tourism in recent years, with its emphasis on the recreation of historical experiences has only exacerbated competition for the all-might dollar. Although the general public bemoaned Disney's attempt to build a theme park at Manassas in the mid-1990s, various interest groups were already well on their way of turning Gettysburg and the surrounding area into a place where visitors not only consumed the Gettysburg experience, but also produced it. Reenactments, which were shunned as inappropriate during the Civil War Centennial were becoming a regular attraction which allowed visitors to experience the life of the common soldier or observe what a battle supposedly looked and smelled like. All of this came with a price tag. The sale of Civil War entertainment and goods at the 125th Anniversary of the battle cost visitors $10 million. This new commercial activity fit in comfortably with the new emphasis on heritage tourism and worked to collapse the distinction between secular and sacred space all together. Even a walk down Steinwehr Avenue to purchase a kepi, the movie Gettysburg, the latest carefully choreographed battle reenactment or even a ghost tour can be seen as the consumption of Gettysburg Heritage. It's no longer just junk, but legitimate reminders and connections to the past.
The attempt to link the town with the events on the battlefield have, for some, been threatened by the decision to move the new VC to a location away from the downtown area. Tighter wallets and gas prices have only added to the concerns of local business owners, commercial developers, and public officials. There is a great deal at stake. We may, in fact, be witnessing a decline in interest in the Civil War since the late 1980s – early 90s and it is unclear at this point whether the Civil War Sesquicentennial will improve the situation. Again, we need to keep in mind that there are only so many dollars that can be brought to Gettysburg so the question of where they will be spent is paramount.
Finally, it is difficult not to address the hostility that has been expressed over what the entrance fee is for. I have to wonder whether there would be such an outcry if the film and museum exhibit had satisfied what many people seem to have anticipated. Forgetting the gift shop for a moment, both features of the new VC seem to me to turn away from the continued emphasis on a narrow range of experiences that have little to do with big ideas or the situation of the battle within the broader scope of American history. For example, many people are upset with the decision not display the rows upon rows of weapons or the dismantling of the Electric Map. The dismantling of the EM serves to remind us that certain modes of the Gettysburg experience are deeply embedded even if its function has been supplanted by more sophisticated exhibits. In the case of the former, it is but a small step to viewing the weapon within a museum and in the hands of a reenactor or actor on the big screen. This is where most Americans, including many Gettysburg buffs, are most comfortable. The problem is that the movie, A New Birth of Freedom, and exhibit place these objects within a broader narrative that includes issues such as race and slavery that directly connect to the battle, but tend to make us uncomfortable or keep us from experiencing what we've been conditioned to expect by movies and other other cultural objects.
I am in the beginning stages of collecting material for a chapter on these and other issues relating to Gettysburg, which I am editing with a fellow historian and blogger. More on that later. In the mean time please feel free to pass on relevant information and, of course, your comments are always helpful. I am particularly interested in the information that the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg passed on to their members as part of their fund raising efforts for the new VC.