Much ink has been spilled over the past several months regarding the new Gettysburg Visitors Center and whether or not it has lived up to what different folks feel it should be. Based on what I’ve read, most of the commentary has been negative, especially in the pages of Civil War News with much of the opinion being that there is too much focus on slavery and “context” and not enough space devoted to the displaying of the artifact-rich Rosensteel Collection.
I have also weighed in on the slavery and context issues but not having seen the new VC, I based my general observations on those battlefields and museums I have visited, along with some of the commentary from the NPS. So needless to say, I was ready to give the Gettysburg VC a stern once-over when I had the opportunity to visit it this past Monday. I admit that I had visions of political correctness run amok and was already preparing for a scathing review.
Well, it’s not going to happen. Color me suitably impressed with what I saw and let me tell you why. First off, I’m not a ballistics or weapons guy. I don’t know the differences between revolver A and B or the nuances of one sword manufacturer versus another. Therefore, the half-dozen or so glass cases of various weaponry were more than adequate for me.
I should point out that the one-fee-for-everything including admission is now in effect. I paid $7.50 for admittance to the museum, Cyclorama painting, and the 22-minute film entitled “New Birth of Freedom.” I found that film to be an excellent introduction. Yes, it starts off by discussing slavery and how it shaped the war, yet by my watch, over half the film was still devoted to the battle of Gettysburg. The museum, by the way, is officially named the “Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War.” Like the film, it delves into the causes of the war as well as the war as a whole, nevertheless much of the museum is still devoted to the battle.
As for the bookstore/gift shop, there were far more books than I was expecting. Every major Gettysburg book I could think of from the past ten years or so was in stock, including the major offerings from authors such as Sears, Pfanz, Reardon, Wert, Wittenberg-Petruzzi, etc. Not only Gettysburg-oriented, but plenty of other battles, Union bios, Confederate bios, and every social aspect of the war including women, slavery, memoirs, etc. In addition, I was surprised to see quite a few long OP titles from Kessinger Publishers, which specializes in print-on-demand reprints of much older titles.
Regarding the debate as to how the VC was sold compared to what it is, well, I am simply not well-versed enough on those past promises to offer an educated opinion.
As for demographics, I’d say the mix of visitors was pretty evenly split between male and female, with average age definitely 40+, though there were several charter tours of high school/college age kids. I did not see any persons of color anywhere in the Visitors Center or during my audio tour of the battlefield. As I've written before, African-Americans as a group may simply have little interest in the American Civil War, regardless of how much "context" the NPS throws at the issue.
All in all, I was quite impressed with the new VC. Ample room, ample parking, good interpretation with plenty of focus on the core topic but just the right amount of context to aid the novice.