Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center
1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Pa. (717) 334-1124 www.nps.gov/gett
Strange (is it not?) that battles, martyrs, blood, even assassination should so condense—perhaps only really, lastingly condense—a nationality. These words, penned by poet Walt Whitman, are inscribed on a wall at the new Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War. The quote is fitting, given the museum’s remarkable ambition to condense the war—its causes, battles, outcomes and even battlefield preservation—into a relatively small space. Generally, the museum succeeds.
Designed to resemble Pennsylvania farm buildings, the $103 million center also houses the new Gettysburg National Military Park visitor center, a café, bookstore, two major theaters and several smaller ones, as well as the historic and painstakingly restored cyclorama, which reopens in September. From the visitor center, museumgoers pass through a small rotunda into the main building, where they can take in an introductory film or view the cyclorama. Beyond is a large lobby seemingly designed to accommodate future events and receptions—the museum is funded through a partnership between the National Park Service and nonprofit Gettysburg Foundation.
Once inside the main exhibit hall, visitors are immersed in a wholly engaging experience. Dark halls wind through chronological galleries packed with artifacts, photographs and maps (some with interactive touch screens). Major emphasis is placed on the causes of war, with more space devoted to slavery—and its link to the 20th century civil rights movement—than one might expect at a military park. The emphasis serves to clarify the sacrifices and resolution of the war. A photomosaic of soldiers lost at Gettysburg adds a poignant human dimension to the narrative.
Information about the actual battle, while familiar to Civil War buffs, is presented in visually interesting ways. Exhibits on Pickett’s Charge, for example, are lined up, one behind the other, enabling viewers to imagine what it might have been like to cross that long field. In a side room, visitors can listen to the Gettysburg Address and wonder anew at its powerful brevity.
Despite a few odd choices, such as a soldier mannequin astride a white horse seemingly made of plastic resin, the museum is moving and compelling. An apt closing section on battlefield preservation reminds us that, when it comes to the Civil War, the landscape itself also has a story to share.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.