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.

I Am Southern Heritage and So Can You

Let's get something straight: 

No one individual or group/organization controls the contours and definition of Southern Heritage.   An identification with- and an attachment to the South and its history belongs to conservatives, liberals, Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, blacks, and whites.  It includes those who revere Lee, Jackson, and Forrest as well as Thomas, Scott, and Cooke.  It includes people whose lives revolve around commemorating and honoring the Confederate cause and its Christian Warriors as well as those who view that cause and those who fought for it with contempt and disdain.  It encompasses those who view the federal government as a threat to liberty as well as those who view it as a means to prosperity.  It includes members of the Republican and Democratic parties,  as well as the NAACP, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and even native and recent transplants to the South.  In fact, you don't even have to live in the "Old South" to identify with its history and heritage.  

Southern Heritage includes the history of the South from the beginning to the present.  It includes examples of individuals and groups acting at their very best and their worst.  Identifying with Southern Heritage need not imply anything about how you evaluate the history of the South.  All of us are free to interpret it as we wish, based on our interests and respective goals. 

This is what I believe.   

Note: Thanks once again for the thoughtful comments, but this thread needs to come to an end. :)

More on Gettysburg Visitor Center

Steinwehr Avenue business owner, Tom Crist, is now convinced that the recent move of the Gettysburg Visitor Center is alone responsible for declining sales:

The Steinwehr Avenue
shop owner and president of the street's business organization was, in
fact, "optimistic" tourists would still find their way to restaurants,
souvenir shops and other venues. 
Four months later, Crist says there's "no doubt about it." 

Businesses haven't just suffered this year because of the
visitor center, which used to be located just down the street from the
popular tourist hub. They've been devastated by it, Crist said.  
"It's not just Steinwehr Avenue," he added. "It's all over town."

Eric Uberman, owner of The American Civil War Museum in Gettysburg, is against an admission fee for the new Visitor Center, but if they are going to go ahead with it suggests that it should be higher than $7.50.  Why?  Because it would allow his site to remain competitive.

Sounds like we are going further down Gettysburg's Rabbit hole.  With that in mind let me propose a solution.  Since the primary goal of the business owners is profit, why not petition the National Park Service and the town of Gettysburg to re-zone a chunk of the battlefield between the new VC and Steinwehr Ave. for commercial purposes.  If they extend the business district closer to the new VC than the people will have a shorter distance to walk for all of their junk.

Read the rest of the story here.

A Rebbe With a Cause or Nathan B. Forrest Was Not a Good Christian No Matter How You Slice It

I think I caught this guy once counseling couples and troubled families on the Oprah Winfrey Show.  Rabbi Schmuley Boteach addresses a strand of Civil War culture and memory that I've never understood and probably never will. 

Which leads me to another conundrum. Many of the Southerners who romanticize the Confederacy are religious Christians who lead lives devoted to moral excellence. How is it possible that they would make heroes of men who betrayed the Bible’s essential message: that G-d is the father of all humankind, and all of us therefore are equal before Him?

There is no easy answer to this question. Some would say that the original sin of the Confederacy’s Christians was to talk themselves into believing that slavery was really a benevolent institution, granting support, food, and shelter to a population who they believed could not fend for themselves. The perpetuation of that sin would be lionizing the Confederate leaders and believing that it does not offend the South’s black citizens or undermine its morality. Still others would say that when G-d-fearing Christians honor the Confederate leaders today, they do so as a means of honoring the South and a lost way of life rather than focusing on slavery. It’s collective amnesia. The horrors of slavery have been forgotten and only the charm of the old South has remained.

But all these answers ring hollow. For people of religion should be lionizing only those whose lives captured the divine ideals that they hold dear. And those who fought to preserve slavery, to use an understatement, simply don’t make the grade.

When religious southern Christians engage in nostalgia for the Confederacy, they are making the mistake of putting Southern sentiment before religious conviction, in effect elevating an inferior part of their identity over the most central part. Regional loyalty must never come before eternal principle.

Since it is the weekend let's have a little fun.  We all know that comments like these are almost always perceived as an attack on "Southern Heritage" so why don't we pretend for a moment that the history of the South extends beyond 1861-1865.  Let's see if we can come up with a list of Southern-born folks that more closely approximate the essential teachings of Jesus other than Lee, Jackson, Forrest, and the rest of the gang.

Note: Thanks for the comments, but at this point I think this discussion thread has been played out.  Therefore, I've decided to close the comments on this post.  :)