Throngs of tourists packed the new Gettysburg National Military Park Visitors Center on its first Saturday in operation.
I was in Gettysburg yesterday as a guest author to sign books at a couple of places, including the Gettysburg Gift Center / Wax Museum. Afterward, my son Tom and I drove over to the new Visitors Center to check it out. There are three significant parking lots for cars, as well as a separate one for buses and RVs. All are a healthy walk from the VC entrance, but not so far as to be an issue for most individuals. The building itself is in a style that is reminiscent of the farms of the region, with a gray stone morif for the “farmhouse” section and a red wooden look for the “round barn” section. The architecture works, as does the overall layout of this sprawling facility.
Walking up from parking lot number 3, the first thing we encountered was a small patio area, replete with a few wrought iron benches and a welcome center. (Click on the thumbnail photo to enlarge it). A couple of reenactors were walking guard duty when we arrived, but as we left they were taking a break. Another reenactor had a crowd of Boy Scouts surrounding him as he explained how to load his replica musket.
Upon entering the building, the first things that strikes you is how open, airy, and massive the foyer is. It seems larger than the entire old VC’s floor space. Frankly, it’s an area that could use more display cases, and the National Park Service certainly is not short on possible artifacts, artillery tubes, and other items that could help fill the space a little better. The space is so huge that period balls could readily be held in it should the NPS ever so desire. An entry way takes the visitor into an anteroom, which again is quite large and open. A wall display includes the number of troops supplied by each state, and in front are two display cases with reenactor uniforms: one North, one South.
Inside the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War, the visitor winds through a dizzying and impressive array of displays, interactive screens, educations presentations, maps, artifacts and relics, and wall-to-ceiling graphics of various sorts. It’s a marvelous effect, one that potentially could take hours to fully explore and appreciate, and certainly sets the visitor up to want to come back time and again. The only downfall is crowd control. Designed to funnel the visitor from point to point in a chronological explanation of the war and its progression, with so many tourists crowded in on this Saturday, few of the displays could actually be read or studied. Eventually, as the novelty wears off, this massive throng should ease and one can take his or her time to more thoroughly enjoy the layouts.
One of the really nice things about the new VC are the array of AV screens with modern graphics, something that will soon make many of casual battlefield visitors forget the old Electric Map. To me, this is far, far more educational and useful than the outdated Electric Map, but I may be in the minority in that opinion, as I know a lot of people who were disappointed the new VC did not include the old map. Another thing that struck me was how much fewer weapons and gun tubes are on display. They dominated the old VC, perhaps to a fault. There are still many weapons on display, tastefully arrayed, but they are not overwhelming.
Here is a typical setup of how the individual galleries are laid out. Visitors are offered so vastly much more information than the old VC could possibly have contained, and there’s so much a tourist or battlefield buff can learn. I fear the temptation for some very casual visitors will be to focus on the museum and VC, and spend less time on the field looking at monuments. The battlefield itself used to be the main attraction (it’s been passed by the ghost tours and tourist traps), but now the VC itself is a world-class, state-of-art attraction that is perhaps the finest of its type in the country.
Here is another shot of one of the galleries, heading into that my friends J. David Petruzzi and Eric J. Wittenberg would most appreciate – the horse soldier section. Graphic boards briefly depict cavalry strategy, something that many wargamers would appreciate.
The map graphics are really, really good, and offer a very nice way of introducing the various battle actions in a way the old Electric Map never could do. However, to stop and watch each of them would be time consuming, but highly encouraged for the new tourist looking to understand the ebb and flow of the battle (or the war for other AVs).
Tom and I did not go into the theater to watch the new orientation movie, as the lines were long and our time was short. I’ll report on the theater in the future. The cyclorama is not open yet; it will be operational in the autumn (September 27). The new bookstore is quite large, but seems to me to have less books than before. I truly miss seeing my three titles on the shelves, a source of extreme personal disappointment that will take some time to get over (an order from the store’s management would go a long way toward helping!).
The new Visitors Center includes a rather large restaurant area, with moderately high prices, but plenty of space, and a nice outdoor area to picnic as well. Restrooms are clean and spacious, and an auxilary building in the bus and RV parking lot offers even more restrooms, as well as vending machines for sodas and water.
All in all, the new VC is a MUST SEE for all wargamers as you come to Gettysburg this summer (or this November for Fall-In 2008 at the Eisenhower Resort and Conference Center).