Tag Archives: Gettysburg National Military Park

I know they have a legal right to meet there

…but seriously, can’t the “Aryan Nations” find some place besides Gettysburg National Military Park to have a rally?

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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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Return of the electric map?

Check out this story posted at Eric Wittenberg’s blog about an effort to relocate Gettysburg’s Electric Map to a site near its old home.  I’d like to see it up and running again, simply for the sake of nostalgia.  I think the question is whether the map would be enough of a draw to anchor an entire museum.  I suspect it would be, since it’s got quite a history of its own.

As much as I love the exhibits in the new Visitor Center, I do miss the opportunity to see the whole battle play out at once that the map provided.  I know it was badly outdated, and I understand that space was a factor in leaving it out of the new facility.  Still, I wish the new exhibits included an updated version.  Cowpens National Battlefield has a smaller and more up-to-date map presentation; I think it uses fiber-optic lights instead of electric bulbs, so it has a much cleaner look and operates more smoothly.  The Electric Map was well past its prime, but I think the basic concept remains the most effective way to illustrate the ebb and flow of a battle.

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Sentiment and historic sites

Professor Brooks Simpson has posted a wonderful piece at Civil Warriors.  It’s about the sentimental attachments we develop toward historic sites, and the conflicted feelings that changes at these sites can generate.  Professor Simpson focuses on the recent transformations at Gettysburg National Military Park that have gotten so much attention around the historical blogosphere. 

He acknowledges that these changes are beneficial and necessary, but he also notes that the park is more than an artifact for him.  It’s also a place he loves:  “Am I glad as a historian that the woods west of the Sedgwick monument have been cleared to give us a much better understanding of the terrain that Daniel Sickles saw on July 2, 1863?  Sure.  But I liked those woods.  Same thing goes for the clearing along Oak Hill.”

Gettysburg is one of my favorite places, too.  Its combination of gorgeous scenery, small-town atmosphere, monumental commemoration, and tourist kitsch—all of it saturated in history—is absolutely unique.  I love being in a place where history isn’t latent, but dominates the landscape.  Unlike many other history buffs, though, I don’t have a longstanding relationship with Gettysburg.  In fact, I’ve only been there twice. 

The first time was a few years ago.  The NPS was already in the process of transferring the collection out of the old visitor center.  Much of it was still in place, though, and the electric map was still up and running.  Still, it was pretty apparent that the old VC was on its last legs.  In addition to the building’s physical deterioration, the exhibits failed to explain the battle (or even many of the artifacts themselves).  There was very little interpretation going on.  Having little sentimental attachment to the facility, and viewing it critically from the standpoint of someone working (at the time) in public history, I didn’t regret its passing.

I can certainly understand why serious aficionados saw little wrong with the exhibits in the old building.  If you’ve already mastered the strategic and tactical picture, then you can appreciate the field without needing to have it explained for you.  As I’ve said before, though, most visitors don’t have the advantage of expertise.  My stance is that the NPS has a responsibility to equip its visitors to understand the sites they’re seeing.  And I couldn’t for the life of me see how the average visitor would obtain a better grasp of the battle in the old museum.  The new one, by contrast, explains Lee’s invasion, the Union response, the three days of battle, and the aftermath.  It gives visitors a grasp of what happened there.

I have a similar attitude toward the removal of trees that encroach on the field.  I don’t have a personal stake in these woods, and I welcome alterations that bring us closer to understanding the battle.

Now, the question is this: Would I be so enthusiastic about these changes if I had been a longtime visitor to the park?  Would I be so cavalier about altering the park for the sake of better interpretation if my own fond memories were at stake?  In all honesty, maybe not.  When places that are special to me change, I usually react with both regret and indignation.

This tension between sentiment and interpretive need is, I think, a unique issue when it comes to historic sites.  Places play a unique role in our lives.  Most of us who love history have fond memories connected to particular books, films, or places.  If you grew up reading Bruce Catton or watching Ken Burns, you can open a book or turn on a DVD player and access that experience whenever you want.  When the memory is tied to a piece of ground, though, that’s not always the case.  You might go back to find that it’s no longer the place you remember.

These debates will probably continue as long as exhibits become outdated, vegetation grows up, and facilities need replacing.  Personally, though, I think the fact that we care enough about these places to have an emotional stake in them is a healthy sign.  We might argue about whether or not they need changing, but we can agree that they’re worth the argument.

(Photo of the High Water Mark from Wikimedia Commons)

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Fee proposal at Gettysburg

In case you haven’t heard, the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center is considering a change in its free structure.  Instead of a combined price of $12.00 for an adult admission to the film and Cyclorama, the proposed change is a flat rate of $7.50 for admission to the exhibits as well as the movie and Cyclorama presentation.  The NPS website has more details.

Protests to the contrary, I can state with a fair degree of professional certainty that $7.50 is quite reasonable for admission to a large museum.  Furthermore, a lot of NPS sites already charge flat admission fees, visitors who want to see the film and the Cyclorama will save money, and the battlefield itself will still be free.  Why should any of this be controversial?


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