And the uproar over the new Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center just keeps on coming. Paul Taylor questions the role that context should play in battlefield exhibits, Eric Wittenberg agrees, and Kevin Levin has some updates here and here. On a related note, WordPress allows me to track the traffic coming to specific posts on my blog, and I’ve noticed that my previous entries about the new Gettysburg exhibits continue to get more hits than most of my other effusions.
As I’ve said before, I enjoyed the new facility at Gettysburg, and I remain convinced that it’s a vast improvement over its predecessor. In the first place, I don’t mind the information on causes and outcomes. By explaining what the battle achieved, it makes the three days of fighting more relevant, not less so. Normally I’d find all the attention to politics and slavery rather superfluous at a battlefield visitor center, but given Gettysburg’s importance and appeal, I think it’s valid to broaden the scope a bit. Civil War aficionados know that all that marching, maneuvering and shooting meant something; the average tourist might need to be reminded.
In the second place, despite all the contextual material, the battle remains the primary focus of the exhibits, and rightly so. Part of the controversy revolves around the number of artifacts included in the new exhibit as opposed to the old one. That’s a valid point, but I reiterate that most visitors don’t have the tactical grasp of the battle that hardcore enthusiasts have. The exhibits must convey this information to them, and it takes more than cases full of labeled weapons to do so. What at impressed me the most about the new exhibits was the clarity with which they explained the battle’s complexity. Making battles sensible is no easy task on the written page, but communicating via exhibitry is even more difficult, so this is no small accomplishment.
In other words, I agree with the critics that explaining the battle is the primary task at hand. And that’s precisely why I appreciate the new exhibit galleries.