Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The New Gettysburg Visitors Center

I visited the new Gettysburg Visitor’s Center this past week with a few family friends. Like many of you, I suspect, I am often called on to give tours at Antietam or Gettysburg for relatives and friends. This was my third visit to the new facility. We spent just over two hours there and skipped most of the Gettysburg Address exhibits to save time for walking the field.

The museum offers a much broader perspective of the war and the exhibits are more topical than the previous museum’s long ranks of muskets and rifles. I do miss the old weapons displays, but they survive in a limited form, and there are numbers of them scattered about in thematic displays. Overall, the presentation has improved dramatically.

Short films provide introductions to each day’s fighting, summaries of the war prior to and after Gettysburg, and an overview of slavery and its impact on American society. The latter film may not sit well with the states rights crowd. The battle films use animated maps to detail the action. Presentation is geared toward general interest in every case. Controversies and regimental detail are lacking, but I tend to agree with the targeting of exhibits toward a general audience. After all, before I was a buff, I was a kid with a copy of They Met at Gettysburg, and it was all new to me.

The exhibits are generally good, but several stand out for me. Interactive touch-screen displays allow you to select any regiment and find its location on the field, along with a picture of its monument. Plaques display the formations and tactics of each service branch using drawings reminiscent of the old American Heritage battle diagrams (or the more recent Battle in the Civil War by Paddy Griffith). Finally, the Pickett’s Charge exhibit includes three displays relating the experience of the men as they marched toward the Union lines. Plaques explain the weapons bearing on them at various distances, and cases filled with shell fragments, bits of fuse, and bullet fragments immerse the viewer in an impression of the destructive power of concentrated infantry and artillery fire.

After three visits and perhaps six hours spent in the new museum, I am favorably impressed with both the quality and quantity of the exhibits. Definitely worth a visit, even if you have been to Gettysburg many times before. And it’s not only the new Visitors Center – the battlefield itself has changed dramatically in recent months. The NPS landscape restoration program has turned back the clock on the field of the second day’s battle around Little Round Top and Devil’s Den to 1863. I will be visiting again soon to explore the field and will post my impressions here, along with a few pictures.

Next Up: Antietam’s Final Attack Trail Part 2 (finally)!

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