Monday, May 26, 2008


I have been a little behind in my posting lately due to illness and lazy-ness. I meant to write about my Gettysburg weekend when it happened several weeks ago but it seems appropriate for Memorial Day.

Gettysburg is an hour from us, which is kinda amazing to think about. We took a family trip to DC, Williamsburg and Gettysburg when I was 16 (in fact my 16th b-day was at Williamsburg) but hadn't seen it since then. Mom chose the location because it was her b-day/Mother's day weekend. I was actually excited because I am a history nerd and they just opened the new visitor center.

I was prepared to be less than impressed because Civil War history is often poorly interpreted and utilized too often for political purposes, especially among reenactors. And, yes, the town of Gettysburg is filled with tourist traps, bad costume shops and many, many reenactors.

But, the exhibit in the visitor center was very well done. They took the time to put the Civil War in the context of America in the 19th century. They positioned the Gettysburg battle in the context of the war. They did a great job of incorporating artifacts, videos and computer stations to tell a complex story. And most importantly, the story was told from multiple perspectives including all of the country's citizens (and those not considered citizens), explaining who America was in 1860. Too often, If minorities or women are present in Civil War exhibits they are usually slapped on as an afterthought, but here they are part of the fabric of the tale, from the beginning.
Especially interesting was the story of the town and people of Gettysburg and what happened to them when the soldiers marched in.

At the end of the exhibit they left room to interpret the Gettysburg Address
The famous speech is universally acclaimed today but all critics did not agree in 1863. This picture shows quotes from papers across the country reacting to the speech. The exhibit ended with a video of the legacy of the Civil War, what it accomplished, what it didn't and what it still means to Americans.

As a museum educator I was encouraged by the choices here. To tell the story in context, to encourage visitors to think about what America was, how we experienced this war and what came of it is the most important lesson. While I overheard a bus driver complaining about the lack of artifacts in the new space, I disagree. Artifacts were used to illustrate the story (and did this beautifully), not to be the story. History nerds get too excited about actual artifacts when the real story is history itself. But the artifacts were cool.

See more pictures here

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