Blogger Kevin Levin has asked me to expand a little on my impressions of the new Gettysburg Visitor’s Center. Well, you can read all about the layout and design of the VC on any number of blogs and websites, so I assume what Kevin wants to know is what I think of the place in light of what others have had to say. I’ll just quickly address some of the criticisms I’ve seen, and also list what I viewed as positives. Keep in mind that I did not visit the theater or the food court.
There is an awful lot of empty space in the building, particularly wall space. This is true, but I don’t know what the future plans are for these expanses. At 9:00 AM the space was conspicuous, but by noon it was obvious that the extra room was a good thing, particularly when one remembers how stifling and close the old VC was when it got crowded. But the place is awfully big: ostentatious, even.
There is not enough of the park’s artifacts collection on display. I can understand this complaint probably better than any other because of the emphasis placed on preserving and exhibiting the artifacts when the rationale for the new VC was laid out. I think a good many items could be added with a more judicious employment of wall space.
There is more touristy junk and fewer book titles in the bookstore than previously. Probably true, but I think many of the regulars who made purchases at the VC bookstore did so out of a sense of obligation, to help out, as it were. Pretty much all the inventory could be had at a fraction of the cost from other stores in town or online. Most of the other folks patronizing the store were looking for general books on the war and the battle, or touristy junk. And nowhere else in town could I find this swell Lincoln-on-a-Stick.
The museum focuses too much on the history of the war in general and not enough on the battle specifically. I think this may be the unkindest criticism of all. The museum’s exhibits help put the battle into context, and at the highest level that should be the goal of interpretation. After all, the other 5,000+ acres of the park are exclusively devoted to the interpretation of the battle.
Most of the criticisms I’ve seen come from fairly hard core students of the war and, more specifically, of Gettysburg. Let’s face it, most of these guys (myself included) hardly spent any time in the old VC, and when we did go in it was to use the bathroom, meet up with friends, or go to the bookstore. Frankly, I think this visitor’s center does not and should not cater to the frequent visitor, because the overwhelming majority of those entering its doors do not and will not do so frequently. Gettysburg is what it is – the equivalent of the baseball and football halls of fame, both of which attempt to tell a whole story. And Gettysburg is more often than not the only Civil War attraction (for lack of a better term) that most of these folks will visit. The NPS owes its patrons the most comprehensive experience it can provide, and I think the new GNMP Visitor’s Center represents a big step in that direction.