Gettysburg battlefield mired in past Museum's visitors don't get up-to-date, full sense of history

July 12, 1998|By Alec Klein

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- So, you want to learn about the Civil War.

You go to Gettysburg. Big battle. Museum. Artifacts everywhere: cannon, muskets, pistols, bullets, flags.

Slavery?

Didn't slavery have something to do with it? You navigate through the halls of the Visitor Center of the Gettysburg National Military Park, past the exhibits on Civil War navies, medicines, canteens.

Then you come to the closest thing on slavery -- a glass case the size of, say, a Yugo. It is an exhibit about U.S. Colored Troops.

On the heels last weekend of the largest Civil War re-enactment ever, 135 years after those three bloody days in Gettysburg determined the outcome of the war, you still would have little idea from the national park exhibits here that the war was fought largely over slavery.

Slavery, however, is just part of the problem. The exhibits at America's most famous, most toured Civil War battlefield, with more than 1.8 million visitors last year, are by all accounts outdated, confusing and badly in need of an overhaul.

"I don't think anybody deigns that a quality museum," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "I think everyone agrees a new museum would be preferable."

That includes visitors: "It wasn't real self-explanatory," said tourist Tom Castle, a 28-year-old Navy engineer from Colts Neck, N.J.

Among the first to agree are the National Park Service rangers who run the center.

"You walk in, and this is what you get, and people say, 'Now what?'" said park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon, referring to that familiar puzzled look. "We have to do a much better job of orienting the visitors."

The park plans to do so. Under a $39 million public-private partnership being considered, a new museum visitor center would open as early as 2003, and it would focus on six themes: (1) how the nation dissolved into war; (2) the Gettysburg battle; (3) the soldier's point of view; (4) the civilian perspective; (5) Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; and (6) how the nation honors the memory of those who fought there.

"We want to tell a bigger and broader story," said Brion FitzGerald, the park's chief of the interpretation and protection division. "Put it in terms of the world picture today. These types of struggles for freedom and equality are occurring in a number of different places around the world."

Lately, historians and preservationists have called attention to a different kind of struggle facing the national park. A victim of a lack of funding, the 5,900-acre battlefield, with its more than 1,300 monuments and statues, 400 cannon and 43,000 cataloged artifacts, has succumbed to rotting, rust and mildew.

But the place is not simply falling apart. The consensus: It has become an anachronism.

"Each generation has to reinterpret its past. The visitor center is reflective of a very old way of thinking of history," said Eileen T. Woodford, Northeast regional director of the National Parks and Conservation Association, an advocacy organization.

What would Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain, or Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet have thought of the park's conditions today? "They would probably be appalled," Woodford said. "If you're talking about 'sacred' in a secular sense, this is pretty sacred ground."

You can't tell this is hallowed ground, not as you approach the visitor center entrance, an unceremonious, two-story abode whose facade is marred by chipped and peeling ivory paint. Little, it seems, has changed since July 4, 1863, a day after the Confederates retreated, when John Rosensteel, a local resident from a nearby farm, grabbed a few mementos from the battlefield and began to display the war souvenirs on his porch.

The center's origins

The Rosensteel family built the museum center in 1921, added to it 14 times over the next 50 years and sold it to the National Park Service in 1971. Then, time stood still. Park officials wanted to tear down the museum, if only because it sat on the center of the Union battle line. But with a $5.6 billion backlog of repairs for the 376 national parks, it never happened.

So, you enter a building that is not wheelchair accessible.

You move through the first floor, trace the development of flintlock rifles. You scan the "Wall of Faces," photographs of those who fought, then move into a dark room. Only it's not supposed to be dark. Were the lights working, you would have seen an exhibit, "The Armies," a graphic illustration of the number of soldiers and the casualties.

On you go, into the "Electric Map" auditorium. A wave of nostalgia hits you. The map, opened to the public in 1938 and last updated in 1963, looks like your high school science project, not quite polished. About 30 feet square, the plaster map is covered with more than 625 tiny lights, blue bulbs representing Union forces, butternut signifying the rebels. The lights flash to show the flow of the Gettysburg battle. A deep baritone voice-over narrates: "For two hours, the hills shook."

Nintendo games are more advanced.

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