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Its $103 million price tag raised a few eyebrows. But a year after opening, the new Gettysburg visitor center raises consciousness as well.

Situated deep in the recesses of the new museum and visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park is, from an artistic perspective, perhaps the least impressive gallery in the hall. Yet it keeps you company long after you leave the facility.

It’s a mural of Abraham Lincoln, with his three-paragraph Gettysburg Address prominently displayed as the voice of actor Sam Waterston recites the prose again and again. Indeed, this is the heartbeat of the $103 million center that opened last year, a gorgeously understated yet comprehensive introduction to the battle that helped change the course of the war.

“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” Lincoln observed on November 19, 1863, in perhaps one of history’s most untrue prophecies. My memory took over before the narrator even had a chance to begin—“but it can never forget what they did here…” My 8th-grade English teacher had drummed this speechette into our skulls, exactly why I did not know at that time.

Lincoln clearly was not being paid by the word. The day after the president’s brief address during the dedication of Gettysburg’s Soldiers Cemetery, Edward Everett—who had himself disgorged two hours’ worth of oratory—remarked with astonishment that Lincoln had summed up the event’s significance in a far more detailed and superior way. Eighteen months later, at the martyred president’s funeral, Senator Charles Sumner opined that the battle itself was less important than Lincoln’s speech that day.

That address, those three exhaustive paragraphs, boiled it down like potent syrup from watery sap. Thanks to my junior-high teacher I knew the words; thanks to the Gettysburg visitor center, I knew the meaning. The new center provides an explanation; the old one contained what can more accurately be billed as a “collection.”

“Context” is a word that Dru Neil, the Gettysburg Foundation’s director of Communications & Marketing, brings up more than once as she explains the center’s mission, which she says is to fit the battle squarely between the Declaration of Independence and, well, the election of President Barack Obama. Conveniently, the newly elected president mentioned Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” as a theme for his inauguration. “We were thrilled” with the reference, Neil said.

It’s a circle completed, perhaps, but one not easily arrived upon. means more rented rooms, more meals and more souvenirs. “When we saw the hotel statistics, we knew things were going well,” Neil said.

Business may depend on the park, but the park also depends on business in the way of hotels and restaurants. Getting both on the same page is the challenge. Personally, Trostle believes the new center is “absolutely beautiful.” More into humanities than history, Trostle appreciates the center’s approach. Rows upon rows of bullets and guns are not as meaningful as the human side the exhibit promotes.

In accordance with the plan, the new center tiptoes on the ground and treads lightly through history. A fellow with an open mind can draw his own conclusions. Its story is told through the efforts of prominent historians on all sides with the mission of avoiding bias. In that sense, the center’s job is done remarkably well. While many museums shove displays in your face immediately upon entry, there is little here to advise “Warning: History Exhibit, Do Not Enter.” (All right, there are a few racks of muskets and rifles in the main hall, but they’re not pointing at anyone.) The historic minimalism is balanced somewhat by commercial interests, a point that drew frowns from some downtown Gettysburg merchants.

Ye Olde ATM is prominently displayed, and the expansive gift shop offers some of the same T-shirts, candy and Abraham Lincoln puppets on sale downtown, goods of the type that leave true historians reaching for a rail for balance. Still, there’s an effort to tie it all in—the gourmet coffee cart is fashioned out of a wagon, and the cafeteria is styled after a Philadelphia saloon—a place of respite for weary soldiers that was something of a precursor to the modern-day USO. If the available cheeseburgers kill the mood, you can order up some more authentic potpies and chili, and that will make the moment satisfactory again. In fact, the canteen itself takes the opportunity to teach a lesson about the diets of soldiers. Union soldiers made out better, gastronomically speaking, but even this is relative. Fruits and vegetables were hard to come by, so meals were typically “meat and bread…cooked in a sea of pork grease.” In that respect, at least, the Civil War was not unlike today.

But any private enterprises may perhaps be excused by the fact that private interests largely built the place through the efforts of the Gettysburg Foundation, which recognized that shrinking federal park expenditures alone could not be counted on for funding, and embarked on a staggering, $125 million fundraising campaign. The $110 million raised to date has benefited from the influx of some public money—$20 million from Pennsylvania and $15 million from Congress for the Cyclorama—but the bulk has come from corporate and private sources, including Civil War aficionados from as far away as Germany and Australia.

The visitor center is the Foundation’s most significant, but not its only undertaking. A number of other projects are under way, from the opening of the David Wills House museum—where Lincoln put the finishing touches on his address—to replanting a peach orchard at the park’s south end. While some trees are added, others must be subtracted. “If a cannon is pointing into the trees, it’s very difficult to get an understanding of what the soldiers went through,” Neil said.

Not all subtractions are popular. The former home of the Cyclorama was an architecturally significant work created in 1961 by Richard Neutra, an important figure in modern design. The old Cyclorama Center, something of a large, concrete pillbox, is regarded in some circles as a masterpiece and has been hailed as “sleek, spare and sexy”—words that are positives in the field of architecture, but in the Civil War, not so much. A coalition of interests took the Park Service to court to try to prevent its demolition.

The goal of the new center was fourfold: 1) Preservation of the park’s 1 million artifacts through proper humidity, temperature and security; 2) restoration of the 370-foot-round Cyclorama painting that depicts Pickett’s Charge; 3) battlefield rehabilitation; and 4) telling Gettysburg’s story in a way that answers questions, but also encourages visitors to get out on the battlefield itself—a scant 15- minute walk from the center. “We don’t want people to come to this building and think that they’ve seen Gettysburg,” Neil said.

That was the effect on Sue Barnes of Keedysville, Md., who paid a recent visit there with her husband, Gale. “It made me think of how affected the people who lived in the town must have been; they must have been affected for years to come,” Barnes said. Wanting to learn more, she bought a book on the subject. She also appreciated that designers went to pains to blend the architecture of the center itself into the native social and topographical scene, which is, or was, largely dependent on agriculture. “The building itself fits right into the landscape,” Barnes said.

This is true. In fact, as you walk into the center you don’t know whether you’re going to be witnessing history or milking cows. The motif divides itself from the traditional “Park Service Chic” where they use forest green and milk-chocolate paint as if they have the world’s last great chance to use it all up. Yes, there is the traditional low stone wall with the Park Service insignia and the advertisement of the “Gettysburg National Military Park,” but it does you no harm unless you trip over it. A couple of barracks-like structures are crowned with a red, Pennsylvania round-barn-style cupola that is the new home to the Cyclorama, an epic crown jewel of a display that was moved here with no little controversy. Visitors to the center arrive in a cavernous great hall of hewn beams and fieldstone flooring—and not much else, save for the buckboard coffee cart and information and ticket counters selling admission for $7.50. A female voice coos about the time it will take to view various sites and gently reminds folks not to climb on the monuments.

You know there’s a museum in here somewhere waiting to pounce, but it’s certainly nonthreatening. As Barnes noted, window after window of artifacts can be off-putting, but the museum “has the quality of a Williamsburg-type exhibit.” The gallery arcs gracefully through a timeline of American history, dovetailing Gettysburg nicely in as a keystone to the whole story—indeed, the story of the three-day battle is told, but not to the exclusion of its significance. So it’s not as if the Battle of Gettysburg ended and the next event of American historical consequence was man walking on the moon. Instead, the tour pulls out parts of Lincoln’s speech—“Never forget what they did here”; “Conceived in liberty”; “Testing whether that nation can long endure”; and so on—to make its points in the dozen-odd galleries. It is work well done.

Even the savviest Civil War buff is treated to something to learn, or if not to learn, something to think about. One wall shows the portraits of 500 war dead. Nothing more. Nothing more needs to be said, aside from what the men’s eyes are already telling us.

An hour may be enough to do the galleries in cursory fashion, but truth be told you could spend an hour gazing at these portraits alone, and reflecting on the fact that this sea of faces represents only a tiny fraction of the ocean of war dead.

Another display, simply called “William Is No More,” zooms in on the life and death of one soldier, Lieutenant William Fisher. Letters from his comrades to his folks detail his final moments, and chilling trinkets of his life, such as his wristband and eyeglasses, still survive.

This micro/macro theme plays out well throughout the exhibit, and the degree to which it—or some of it, anyway—was planned out is anyone’s guess. A number of movies play throughout the halls, and from the general corridor they can all be heard at once. Such is the confusion of war. But step into one of the mini-theaters and all the other voices from all the other video rooms somehow fall silent—thus the focusing in, fading out effect of minor skirmishes and major action. Similarly, you can look and you can participate, although personally I was born too early to appreciate these newfangled ideas of interactivity. A computer touch screen allows you the chance to “pack” for battle—but I got frustrated when I couldn’t find the beer coolers. A more low-tech exhibit gives you the chance to heft a historically accurate (in weight, at least) haversack. I was able to do that, so I was pleased.

The general overview is presented in large theaters at the base of the Cyclorama. The 22-minute film, “A New Birth of Freedom,” is narrated by Morgan Freeman and explains Gettysburg’s relevance as best a 22-minute summation of an action involving 165,000 troops can. From there, escalators lead three stories up to the Cyclorama. These escalators were the first items of superstructure to be installed at the museum—the rest of the center was built around them. That’s fitting, perhaps, since all else at the center revolves around the Cyclorama. It’s probably wise to save this display for last, lest everything else in the building be something of a letdown.

This glorious rebirth of the Cyclorama comes about two centuries after the format was introduced. Cycloramas enjoyed great popularity in the late 1800s before being rendered almost immediately archaic by the introduction of moving pictures.

There was no question that this particular painting in the round was due for a restoration—the canvas itself was starting to resemble a bandaged-up war veteran, patched and tattered with sizable chunks gone missing or used to paper over other sections that were in ill-repair. The $15 million restoration took the better of five years and is the largest restoration project of its kind in North America.

Originally intended as a for-profit enterprise, the painting was the work of French artist Paul Philippoteaux and 20 trusted palate jockeys. The moment caught in time—Pickett’s Charge—was no accident. Being a business enterprise, it was designed to appeal to Northerners (we won) and Southerners (we almost won) alike. Not averse to a lark, Philippoteaux painted himself into the work, as an officer no less (an artist must have his standards), his red Van Dyke pointing prominently out of his chin. Another of his soldiers—a wounded Yankee—bears a suspicious resemblance to Abraham Lincoln.

The painting is not terribly realistic; it’s been described as a trifle goofy in some looking-down-the-nose circles. But it’s the mood, not the realism, that matters. Civil War veterans were said to weep when they witnessed its Boston unveiling in 1884. Here is the doomed Armistead (inaccurately shown on a horse, but never mind) desperately doing his best to storm the Union strongpoint along Cemetery Ridge. There is his friend Hancock, repulsing Pickett’s last gasp.

In the distance are Big and Little Roundtops, which appear, through stage and lighting illusions, to be a mile distant. Philippoteaux’s painting is one thing; the ingenious, 21st-century technology that brings it to life is another. For one, the restoration called for the recreation of the lost diorama that was part of the original work. The foreground is littered with wagons, guns and scrub, which create a 3-D foreground that blurs the lines between real and imagined. Most striking is a stone well with a tree-limb tripod used to haul up buckets of water. Half the stones are real, half painted. Two legs of the tripod are on canvas, one is an actual stick. So real is the effect that an interpreter points out the dichotomy, lest we not notice on our own. Philippoteaux took pains to accurately portray the battle, interviewing war vets and photographing the topography—a few pictures of which are part of the exhibit. The restoration crew has done him one better.

Cleverly placed canopies above add to the illusion of distance and tricky lighting effects add to the illusion of movement. The show begins at daylight, with the painting illuminated in a soft, morning glow. The action builds as the day goes on, with points of the battle accentuated by sweeping lights. It really seems as if the painted clouds of cannon smoke are wafting across the battlefield. At the end of the narrated presentation, a dim, bloody red permeates the scene.

But perhaps the most striking effect is one that would have been foreign to 19th-century viewers: Hi-tech sound. Percussive shell explosions pound the eardrums to the degree that any viewers with overly sensitive hearing might suffer some discomfort. Translation: Do not bring your dog.

Writing about his brief experience as a Civil War soldier, Mark Twain boasted that, although totally unschooled in the finer points of war, he mastered the art of retreat faster than anyone else on the field. The Cyclorama has that effect on timid people such as myself. It’s real enough that you want no slice of the pie. If they could have made the war quiet, more orderly and without the stench I might have handled it—otherwise, I’m not your guy.

Philippoteaux painted four of these things. Three have been lost to time, and the survival of this one is something of a miracle. It was a traveling show, and parts of it were chopped up for display in pedestrian environs, such as department stores. Nothing like viewing a little carnage while you’re shopping for tea towels.

The painstaking restoration turned up a number of curiosities, such as the fact that previous efforts had involved ripping out sections of the sky to patch damaged, and more significant, portions of the work. Today the Cyclorama is seen as it was meant to be seen, and then some. And perhaps the same can be said of the story of Gettysburg. Through a costly, painstakingly assembled and thoughtfully arranged visitor center at what they call the “New Gettysburg,” the story is finally being told as it was meant to be told.


Tim Rowland is a columnist, humor writer and history fanatic who lives on a farm with his wife, Beth, and about 35 assorted farm critters.

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.