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.)