Thursday, October 15, 2009

My Visit to Gettysburg National Battlefield Visitor Center

As I mentioned in the last post, I was in Gettysburg last weekend. I had heard a lot about the new $135 million Visitor Center, both good and bad, since it opened about a year ago, so I really wanted to see it for myself and make my own judgement.

The first thing that surprised me was the parking lot. I had been to the old Visitor Center a number of times, and it was always busy, but I don't remember the parking lot there being all that full. When we got to the new Center at about 11:00 am last Friday, we had to park in the last row of the last lot. It was that full. I suppose I could have been negative and complained about having to walk so far, but I couldn't, I was too happy to see a historic site having so much business.

The new building is quite impressive. The main entrance is stone and the rest is a kind of red siding that I think is architecturally designed to look somewhat like a traditional Pennsylvania, a barn on steroids that is.

Inside it has a huge bookstore, a cozy looking restaurant, ticket lines, and lots of people. There is no charge to look around, but if you want to see any of the special features you have to buy a ticket. I can't imagine that any Civil War nut would not want to see what all is available. The tickets for the museum, film, and Cyclorama were only $9.50 each with a AAA discount. We looked around at some of the weapons and artifact displays while we waited for our time to see the film. I had heard that some people were disappointed that the huge number of weapons and artifacts that were displayed at the old center were not available for viewing now. I didn't think this was a significant drawback because now the museum holds a great deal of artifacts and they are displayed and interpreted better than before.

The film "A New Birth of Freedom" was quite well done and narrated by Morgan Freeman. I especially liked the images, pictures, and documents that they chose to show in the antebellum section of the film. Although only about 2o some minutes, the film deftly covers the events that led up to the war, the three days of battle at Gettysburg, the end of the war, and even covered a little Reconstruction. Overall the film reemphasizes the importance of learning about this monumental era and the relevance of it on our present lives.

From the film we were taken to the area where the restored Cyclorama painting is now displayed. This huge painting-in-the-round measures some 377 feet in circumference and 42 feet in height. The narration and light show almost made me feel like I was right in the thick of the Union lines that received the brunt of Pickett's charge. The recent 5 year restoration project of the painting, which was painted in 1884, makes this a must see. The foreground of the painting is littered with battlefield debris to make the feeling all that much more life-like and visually leads right to the edge of the enormous painting.

Next we went through the museum. I was very impressed with the displays and interpretation. There were interactive computer displays throughout the museum, and a number of short videos. Instead of covering just the three days of battle (which it did in great detail), the museum went much further, by explaining the causes of the conflict, and the significant events of the war.

We finished our visit with a trip to the bookstore. I was good and didn't buy any books, but they had just about any Civil War book that you could ask for, and certainly almost every book on Gettysburg. The store also had a plethora of other items that museum stores carry, but with a much wider selection than usually available.

I left feeling good about the new Visitor Center and wondering why some people were not pleased with it. I guess you can't suit everyone. If you ever get to the Gettysburg area, you should make time to stop in and see it for yourself.

For more information see their web site:

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