Why Do You Go To The Gettysburg Visitor Center?

I’ve been keeping track of recent reviews of the new Gettysburg Visitor Center in both newspapers and on websites.  At some point soon I am going to write up an essay that situates the current debate over battlefield interpretation within a broader analysis of how Gettysburg has been interpreted over the past fifty years.  It seems to me that to fully understand these interpretive fault lines one needs to do a bit of history.  Katherine Calos offers her own take on the VC for Richmond.com.  Overall, it’s a positive review, but I want to focus briefly on a few of the remarks from visitors that are included in her piece:

“I found it very moving,” said Tim Ruohoniemi, who was there with his wife, Lisa, and children Emma, 10, and Ian, 8. Their visit was one stop
on a 6-month sabbatical from their work with the World Mission Prayer League in Nepal.  “As a child I was here,” he said. “I thought I knew something about the Civil War. You come to a place like this and, wow, there’s a lot. The conflict before the war was something I never fully grasped. It never really sunk in that both sides were fighting for freedom — what they thought of as freedom.”

People who have complaints about the new museum tend to echo Bob and Denise Lawther of Johnstown, Pa.  “I was a little disappointed with it,” he said. “I thought they needed more artifacts. I remember as a kid, coming down here from school, they had the surgeon’s table, the tools. I expected more displays.  “It was a little drab, too dark,” he added. “They need to brighten it up a little.”

All of the assessments that I’ve read from individuals who have actually visited the VC can be divided into one of these two camps.  In many ways they reflect two very different approaches to museums as well as the study and remembrance of the Civil War.

In the former camp we can see an emphasis on meaning and significance.  This visitor wants to know why the battlefield ought to matter.  Artifacts and information matter only to the extent that they assist the visitor in acquiring an understanding of a bigger picture.  That bigger picture not only works to connect what appear to be disparate events into a coherent narrative, but forces the visitor to reflect on his/her relation to other Americans in both the past and present.

Much of the criticism of the new VC can easily be included in the latter camp.  This visitor is interested primarily in artifacts as a means to reflection.  The artifacts are a tangible link to a past that this visitor hopes to experience through one of the senses.  In most cases its about the experiences of the common soldier.  Broader narratives are seen as tangential and as a distraction since they are abstract and not directly related to any individual artifact. Here is your antipathy toward museum interpretation; the further the interpretation is removed from the object of the individual’s experience the louder the objection.  The anger over the removal of the Electric Map is an extension of this emphasis on the individual: “What about my experience of the battlefield?”  Notice that most of the complaints about the new VC are about an individual’s experience of Gettysburg and not about how that object/artifact fits into the overall goal of understanding the battle broadly construed.  In the world of heritage tourism the consumption of the past begins and ends with the individual.

It comes down to a question of what kind of visitor the National Park Service ought to cater to.

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