Controversy abounds at the Gettysburg Visitor Center

When the new Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center first opened, it was a hot topic in the world of Civil War blogging, and now it’s popping up again.  Check out noted author Eric Wittenberg’s last couple of posts, including a scathing review of the exhibits from Civil War News.  The new galleries are more interpretive and less artifact-heavy than the old ones, which has some critics pretty upset.

I’ve spent most of my (admittedly brief) career in history museums, so I’ve followed these discussions with some interest.  Not long ago I got the opportunity to write a review of the exhibits for a quarterly Lincoln journal.  It hasn’t been published yet, but allow me to make a few general remarks.

When I was a museum intern, my mentor used to say, “An exhibit is a communication device.”  If we’re going to assess the new Gettysburg museum, we need to determine what the planners were trying to communicate and whether or not they’ve succeeded, while remembering the scope of the intended audience.

First of all, I can sympathize with the critics who miss the rows on rows of artifacts.  I also believe the decision not to include an updated electric map was a mistake, although the old one was well past its prime.

But it’s important to keep two things in mind when judging the new museum’s content.  First, context matters.  Wars happen because tremendous issues are at stake, and the average visitor needs to understand those issues in order to appreciate the significance of what they’re going to see.

Second, I don’t think that the inclusion of this contextual material excludes a good examination of the battle itself.  In fact, one of the new museum’s great strengths is how effectively it explains the organization of armies, the function of cavalry, or the use of artillery in repulsing Pickett’s attack.  When it comes to political/social context vs. strategy and tactics, visitors to the new museum can have their cake and eat it, too.

I think most visitors will leave these galleries understanding why the battle happened, how it unfolded, and what it meant and continues to mean.  To me, that qualifies as a success.

(The image is from the Gettysburg National Military Park’s website.)

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4 Comments

Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

4 responses to “Controversy abounds at the Gettysburg Visitor Center

  1. Sean Dail

    Hi Michael,

    I agree that visitors will leave knowing “why the battle happened, how it unfolded, and what it means and continues to mean.” Trouble is, there is much more emphasis on the first and third items than on the second one – which ought to be the primary focus of the _Gettysburg_ visitor center. After all, folks will presumably be leaving it to go and see the battlefield itself, though I have a feeling that time spent at the trendy new visitor center is going to keep a lot of visitors from ever seeing much of the field itself.

    More importantly, how much of the information in the museum could just have easily been gained from reading a very basic history of the battle at home? If you’re going to drive (or fly) all the way to Gettysburg, shouldn’t there be something in the museum for you that you couldn’t have gotten from a book you could read at home? Museums are for artifacts and unique presentations (like the electric map, for instance) – the new visitor center falls woefully short on that score, and for the amount of money invested I think it fails even a basic test of adequacy. It’s big and pretty – and downright overwhelming (don’t even get me started on the waste of space) – but as a museum it is a huge disappointment.

    Sean

  2. mlynchhistory

    I think you’ve raised some great points. Museums should utilize artifacts effectively, because they’re the only institutions that can do so. I also wholeheartedly agree that anyone who visits an important site should try to orient themselves with a little reading before they go, although sadly many people do not.

    When I was a teenager my family used to rent a minivan and spend a few weeks during the summer driving all over the western U.S. One year we stopped at Little Bighorn Battlefield, and we passed another family with two young kids on the path. The mom was reading the free brochure, and as she walked by I heard her say, “Oh, kids, there was a battle here! ‘The Battle of the Little Bighorn!’”

    Anyway, excellent points. Thanks for your comment!

    Michael Lynch

  3. Sean Dail

    Michael,

    I think we all have our “Little Big Horn” moments – several of mine have been comments made by parents who were home schooling, for goodness sake… But hopefully, some of those kids are inspired (the way I was the first time I went to certain historic sites, Gettysburg among them) to further study. And somehow it’sa easier for me imagine a young child getting inspired to further study by the tangible artifcacts associated with a battlefield than by a lot of printed words and pictures on a wall. But who knows…

    I’m afraid too many of the kids who visit the new Gettysburg visitor center leave the place all wrapped up in the silly trinkets they’re peddling in the bookstore – word is that the best-selling item is Abe Lincoln on a Stick: a large Lincoln head with a jaw that open and closes by operation of a lever at the end of the stick. How memorable.

    Sean

  4. mlynchhistory

    Okay, I’ve got to agree with you there, because Abe Lincoln on a stick sounds even worse than the strap-on beards they sell at the ALPLM in Springfield.

    You know, in all seriousness, the subject of merchandise at historic sites and museums might make an interesting topic for a post or series of posts. Gift shop managers often put too little thought into what they’re peddling, and sometimes it’s downright counter-productive. I know it’s important to make money to support the operations, but that’s no excuse for sloppy merchandising.

    I definitely feel a post coming on, and quite soon.

    Michael Lynch

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