With a new visitor center opening at Gettysburt, which is reported in a nice article in the Washington Post, an interesting question is raised about the state of visitor centers at our nation’s Civil War battlefields. Having visited several sites over the years, including Gettysburg, I have to say that I am quite happy when new facilities open. I look forward to someday visiting the new center at Gettysburg, as the old center showed its age and while it was interesting, I feel that the new site will make visits to the park more pleasant. Several battlefields do not have interpretive centers, as they are close to other battlefields that have a central interpretive center. Others have centers that I feel are lacking.
I rate museums on three criteria: collection/displays, video, and bookstore. One of the better centers is at Vicksburg, as it is a fairly large site and has a separate center for the USS Cairo gunboat, which was salvaged from the Yazoo River and is housed at Vicksburg, which gives it a great collection and display. The site’s video is dated, but acceptable. Vicksburg is slightly lacking in its bookstore, as I prefer sites to have books relating to the battle and events surrounding it.
Bookstores and videos are the most common issues with many sites, as the videos are often dated productions of the NPS from the 1950s-1970s, with a few adapting more recent videos. Many site bookstores are lacking in books, choosing to offer many more trinkets than books. In addition, many site stores suffer from the recent federal government desires to place the battle in the larger context of the war, and the war in the larger context of society. The result is too many books devoted to subjects unrelated to the battle. While I think that there should be a few titles on the overall Civil War at all sites (Shelby Foote, etc.), more space in the stores needs to be for books related to the battle covered by the site, as well as biographies of the major players.
Sites that are somewhat lacking in terms of a visitor center are Shiloh and Chancellorsville. Both sites have videos that are quite dated and have too small collections and displays in their museums. While the real point of visiting the battlefields is to view the grounds, the center provides a first impression of the site, especially to those not familiar with the war. Both sites can be greatly improved by having larger centers with a larger museum, more up to date video, and a larger bookstore.
One issue raised by the new center at Gettysburg surrounds the private funding of the center. There are some who believe that such funding is problematic and that the government should fund the site given its importance to our history. I see that point, but also believe that funding from individuals and companies committed to historic preservation and education is essential to making sites truly great. Private funding allows for larger and better sites to interpret the battle for visitors. Such funding allows for larger museum collections and better battlefield preservation. I say that private funding should be encouraged for constructing centers on battlefield parks, and that the NPS funding should be used for research and staff pay, as it would allow such sites to provide the best education and to hire the best-trained staff to greet visitors.
I hope that the new center at Gettysburg will motivate the National Park Service to build new centers at other sites and enhance Civil War education. I encourage people to write their representatives and other government officials and to express your desire to see more funding for Civil War battlefields for center improvement. To all who work and volunteer at historic sites, thank you for your hard work. Having done such work, I can say that you are more important than the visitor center building.