Tag Archives: Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center

Evaluating Latschar

A reader left this comment on my previous post: “A bit off-topic, but what do you think of the NPS transferring Gettysburg Superintendent John Latschar to an in-house desk job after thousands of pornographic images were found on his work computer?”

From Wikimedia Commons

It’s a fair question.  I’ve got plenty of opinions about some of the recent changes at Gettysburg—the new exhibits, the tree-cutting, the public-private relationship—and I’ve discussed them on this blog a number of times.  For the most part, I’m pretty favorable about them.  The field is closer to its original appearance, thanks to the tree-removal and the closing of the old Visitor Center.  I like the new exhibits; I fully agree with the critics who claim that the focus should be on the battle itself, but I found that the new museum explains the battle much more effectively than the old one.  And as for the public-private partnership, I’m fine with it.  In fact, private non-profit support groups are pretty much standard for any historic site or museum that’s also a government entity.  Plenty of people will donate to a private foundation; few will do so to a government agency.  (I ran a museum for a little while that was a government department, and all our fundraising was through the private non-profit group associated with us.)  I can see how Latschar assuming leadership of the Foundation might be questionable, but the partnership with the Foundation isn’t anything but standard museum/preservation practice.

As for the computer scandal and Latschar’s transfer to a desk job, though, I’m afraid my answer is going to sound disingenuous.  I actually don’t have an opinion about it. 

I don’t know Latschar personally, of course, and I’m not privy to any information about this that hasn’t been in the press or made public.  I don’t know what the standard punishment is for this type of misuse of a Department of the Interior computer, so I can’t say whether he got off easy or not.  I will say that news of his transfer surprised me.  I expected the whole thing to blow over.

What I find really striking about Latschar’s transfer—and everything that’s happened at Gettysburg in recent years—is the public interest generated.  I can’t think of any other historic site or public historian that has generated so much passion and controversy, from the dispute over the Electric Map to this last round.  In fact, I think the Electric Map controversy has generated much, much more interest than the complete loss of Brandywine Battlefield’s state funding; the dismantling of a single exhibit got more attention than the closure of one of the most important Revolutionary War sites.

Gettysburg, in other words, is another animal altogether.  I doubt any other historic site could have been the center of such passionate discussion as has centered around it for the past few years.  I don’t like seeing so many history devotees disagree with each other, but the disagreement shows that they all care about the place—and that’s a very good thing.

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Electric Map 2.0

A couple of days ago I posted about a news item that Eric Wittenberg mentioned on his blog.  To recap, the folks at Gettysburg National Military Park are thinking about reviving the Electric Map in the form of a film presentation.

Critics of the map said that it was too big and too antiquated, and I agree.  But I can also sympathize with those who miss seeing the battle play out in three dimensions, and I think that basic approach remains the best way to demonstrate the troop movements for visitors.  Given that fact, and all the uproar, I wondered in my post (as I’ve wondered before) why the NPS didn’t utilize fiber optic technology to create a smaller, modernized, smoother version of the Electric Map for the twenty-first century, such as the one at Cowpens National Battlefield.

I should’ve thought of this before I published that post, but I decided to see if I could find an online video of the Cowpens map, so those of you who haven’t been there could see what I was talking about.  To my surprise, I found one. 

The ex-museum guy in me gets all giddy over this sort of thing.  This baby is remarkably compact, located inside a tiny auditorium with a few benches.  There’s a separate map above it that depicts the overall strategic situation in the Revolutionary South, although in this clip it’s replaced with illustrations.

Now imagine one of these in the new visitor center at Gettysburg, along with a fiber optic wall map to show the invasion of Pennsylvania and Lee’s retreat back into Virginia.  I think it’d be pretty sweet, and visitors could still get that three-dimensional orientation that the Electric Map provided—without the bulk and noise.

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Reincarnating the Electric Map?

Eric Wittenberg draws our attention to an interesting news item from Gettysburg.  They’re throwing around the idea of bringing back some version of the Electric Map in a conventional, movie-theater format. 

I’m not sure what they’ve got in mind, but the news item makes an implication that has me scratching my head: “The Electric Map was disassembled earlier this year and placed in storage, where it remains today. But before it was taken apart, the Electric Map presentation was filmed, Park Superintendent John Latschar said Thursday. The film is being edited, he said.”

Did I get that right?  Are they thinking about just running a film of the Electric Map running through its paces?  If that’s the case, I’ll pass.

Maybe they’re planning to put together a new, original film that will basically be a two-dimensional, onscreen animated map.  That’s not a bad idea, but it won’t really accomplish anything that hasn’t already been done with the shorter tactical films in the battle galleries.  The only advantage would be that visitors could see the entire battle as a whole, as they did before.

As much as I love the new exhibits, I still can’t figure out why they didn’t replace the Electric Map with a smaller, fiber optic version similar to the one at Cowpens.  The decision to demolish the old map seemed to have a lot to do with its unwieldy size and outdated technology; the approach at Cowpens would have eliminated both of these problems.   Anyway, we’ll see what they’ve got in the works.

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Gettysburg Museum Controversy Marches On

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.

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The Park Service Strikes Back

Gettysburg National Military Park Superintendent John Latschar isn’t taking all the uproar over the new Museum and Visitor Center lying down.  Check out his thoughtful response to the critics, to which Kevin Levin refers over at his Civil War Memory blog.

Latschar’s remarks underscore the importance of audience and aims.  A visitor center at a major site like Gettysburg can’t cater solely to hardcore experts.  To do so would be a dereliction of duty.  I think it’s perfectly valid to question whether or not the NPS achieved its goal of educating the average visitor, but to question whether that goal itself its valid misses the point of museum exhibits and of historic sites in general.

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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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