Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Gettysburg: the new visitor center (I like it!)

Yesterday was a beautiful day so I drove up to Gettysburg to check out the highly anticipated, brand-new, and much discussed  Visitor Center.

Now before I begin, let me just say that I have a very warm place in my heart for my memories of the old Rosensteel Museum as well as one of my favorite examples of modernism, the Cyclorama center.

That being said, after being in the new VC for perhaps 60 seconds, any period of mourning I may have been going through for those old buildings was over and done with.

Immediately upon entering the new VC one will realize just how inadequate the old one was.

Insisting on being all cranked out of shape about the transition is like staying angry at your ex-wife long after she's gotten on with her life; you just end up looking like an old grouch.

The new VC is outstanding and well worth the wait and the brouhaha that transition always brings.  When all the dust settles it will be clear that the park staff, its foundation, and its superintendent have done something very right and very well here.

First things first
The sacred cows

There are certain iconic things that I needed to see back on display from the old visitor center:

Guns- check

Uniforms - check

Floor joists holed by cannon ball - check

Cannon - check

Some appropriate homage to the Rosensteels (who may have had as much to do with putting Gettysburg on the map as did Lee and Meade) - check

New things

HIGH TECH - The resource room where in-depth computer based research and learning happens.

LOW TECH-"It's like they're real!

There are also new things that had long been needed in the old museum. Like this:

There it is, front and center, just as you walk into the the museum and in the opening scenes of the (outstanding) new interpretive film.

Like the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, this museum makes it very clear that slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War. Apparently this is bothering some people.

Part of my philosophy of education includes the idea that the act of teaching should also be an act of provocation. That is, to provoke the thinking of the learner to new places, to question ones assumptions or closely held (though inexplicable) beliefs.

This aspect of the new museum does a good job of that both in the take home messages of the exhibitry as well as the film.

The exhibits take the visitor through the entire ACW from the events leading up to it, to the aftermath. The core concentration, of course, is the battle of Gettysburg which is broken down, by day, in three galleries.

I didn't take photos in the galleries as the light levels don't lend themselves to good photography. 

The exhibit design itself delivered few surprises. Consistant with the museum industry movement of the last two decades, concepts are delivered in tierd (not "tired") text with the "big ideas" in the largest type at the top and the ancillary ideas below with lots of supporting text beyond that.  There are lots and lots of objects, all in context.

The design also stays consistant with the (sometimes tedious, in my opinion) idea that the visitor must be told a story starting at A and ending at Z. There is little opportunity for self discovery or serendipity in this type of design, which is about all you see any more these days.

I must still be a Victorian as I've always, as a visitor, preferred the "cabinet of curiosities" style of museum craft. Part of the appeal, to me, of the old museum was the "more is more" approach of heaping zillions of minie balls and displaying endless rows of swords, pistols, and hats.

As an educator however, I appreciate the effort of putting the battle, and the war, into a larger context.  I also like the curriculum-linked support that this directed exhibitry provides. Once the park and teachers figure out a joint gameplan (beyond using junior ranger booklets for scavenger hunts) this museum will provide a regional cornerstone for Civil War education for students from fourth grade through college.

Educationally this Museum will be a major regional asset, that is beyond a doubt.

Recreationally, this visitor center is a blast for the visitor, adult or child, Civil War enthusiast or not.


Absolutely! This visitor center really has something for just about everyone. Foodies will enjoy the resturant with its varied menu and very open and bright dining area and outdoor terrace.

[Chow down under the watchful eye of a commissary officer]

Shoppers will delight in getting lost in the huge museum store which carries not only the usual range of books but also rafts of giftie things, crafts, and other such chatskies (they could use more toy soldiers in my opinion).

Those who prefer to just sit and read the paper or a novel while the Missus gets her ACW fix for a couple of hours will have ample opportunities to do just that comfortably, indoor or out, shade or sunshine.

The "captive audience" (those patient and less-than-willing souls who travel with Civil War enthusiasts) can also catch the free shuttle bus to the nearby business district of Gettysburg for ice cream, tee shirts, and all manner of shopping/people watching opportunities.

As with all new facilities there will be glitches and kinks both large and small.  Most of which should get worked out over time, many of which will not even be noticed by the visitor.

The Bottom Line Arrive early.

Remember, this is Gettysburg, so the place will be crowded.

I arrived right at eight o'clock and had the museum nearly to myself for a delightful hour. However, when I came back from the cemetery walk (which was outstanding) to do some more in-depth exploration of the galleries, I found them so crowded with visitors that I simply was unable to navigate through.

Gettysburg is always crowded so you have to pick your moments. Early (early!) morning is always best, and the entire month of September is good as you'll not be competing with oceans of schoolchildren on field trips.  

Go see for yourself, enjoy your visit, and as always,

enjoy your National Parks.

Ranger Mannie


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting your review of the new VC plus the pictures! I had originally planned to be there the day it opened but have been laid up with a back injury.
I'm so happy to know you enjoyed the new place. I was a bit worried after reading some rather negative reviews. Of course now that I've read this I can't wait to get there!
Thanks again for this awesome post.

Anonymous said...

I visited the park in early May primarily for the new visitor center and to hopefully beat the summer tourist crowd. Your comments on the center are right on target, particularly about getting there early. Because I typically walk battlefields from sunrise to sunset over a two-three day period, my experience w/ the center (and park) was very similar to yours. Good write-up. Am trying to squeeze a return trip to Antietam/Harper's Ferry in next few months. As you well know, another outstanding place to visit/study.


Anonymous said...

Thanks from me as well, I can't wait to get up there. Kudos on the tips about crowds, I guess I had forgotten how crowded it does get there!

Jeff from Point of Rocks