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Gettysburg National Military Park: Of Cycloramas, Museums and Visitor Centers

An artist's conceptual drawing of the new Museum and Visitor Center.

An artist's conceptual sketch of the new Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center and a scene from Paul Philippoteaux's cyclorama of Pickett's Charge. NPS images.

At 8 a.m. EDT Monday a door will open into this country's most bitter moment in history when the $103 million Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park opens for business.

The culmination of more than a decade of planning, the visitor center was relocated away from the previous center, a small facility that stood on ground long considered sacred for the Civil War battle that raged there in early July 1863. Designed to fit into the surrounding Pennsylvania countryside, the center that resembles to some degree just another red barn pays homage to the soldiers who died at Gettysburg while at the same time delving into the conflict that nearly tore this country apart.

This from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

It will house 300,000 artifacts and 700,000 archival documents. Only about 7 percent of the collection will be exhibited, but the items "will be displayed in context," Gettysburg Superintendent John Latschar said. "The old museum had racks of weapons, but they didn't teach anything."

Among the featured treasures: Robert E. Lee's camp desk, a door from abolitionist John Brown's jail cell in Harpers Ferry, and a bullet-scarred, pocket-size Manual of the Christian Soldier, carried at Gettysburg by John Cassidy of the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The bullet that passed through the book killed Cassidy during Pickett's Charge up Cemetery Ridge on July 3, the climactic action in the battle.

For more of the newspaper's story on the museum, click here.

Now, while the famed "cyclorama" that captured Pickett's Charge up Cemetery Ridge won't be on display until this fall, pick up the April 14 edition of Newsweek and you'll be able to read about the $12 million restoration of Paul Philippoteaux's 1884 immense painting of that fateful battle.

Much work remains to be done, Newsweek reports. But even partially restored, the painting seethes with life -- and death. This is no mindless celebration of war but a balancing act of horror and heroism. Philippoteaux stared straight into the face of battle, and he didn't flinch.

For an interesting video on cycloramas in general and the Gettysburg cyclorama specifically, check out Newsweek's short video on the subject. Be sure to click the tiny box in the lower righthand corner to enlarge the screen on your monitor.


For all the talk of the National Park Service being so under-funded, it seems like there are an awful lot of Vistitor's Centers projects underway. There's a new one at Grand Teton, two new ones at Yellowstone, a new destination center on the Blue Ridge Parkway... it would be interesting to know just how many of them there have been. Now granted, the existing Visitors Center at Gettysburg was definitely becoming over-matched, as anyone who has visited on a summer weekend can attest. Nevertheless, should all these new Visitors Centers be the priority for the Park Service's scarce funding dollars?

The Gettysburg VC largely was given birth by private donations, while the Blue Ridge center was the largess of former U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-NC, who seemed to have his funding priorities upside down. Was a facility of that stature and expense -- nearly $10 million -- needed? At a park that has roughly 45 staff vacancies because it can't afford them?

Private contributions helped fund the Grand Teton center, though I can't recall exactly how much. There's also a new visitor center being built at Old Faithful in Yellowstone. Some $15 million of the $27 million price tag was raised by the Yellowstone Park Foundation.

I can say the old Grand Teton and Old Faithful visitor centers badly needed to be replaced. And if not for private funds, the new facilities would not be so, shall we say, grand.

There indeed are myriad funding needs across the park system, and at times it seems only those that can find a friend in the private sector get the money they need.

So, if such private donations are so forthcoming for the construction of visitor's centers, perhaps there is a way to channel that money into other priorities?

In theory, that's what the Centennial Challenge is all about...We should get an idea of how successful that is in the not-too-distant future when Interior/NPS announces the first round of funded projects. The concern, of course, is that while there are numerous needs across the park system, how many donors will want to underwrite a sewer system or a restroom?

Kurt, this is another example of our historical and natural heritage being short changed by are present administration that has it's priorities backwards (as usual). Scrounging around for private funding for the national parks is a horrendous effort by the most dedicated who care. We can do better and even much better once Bush & Chaney leave leaving the damn disastrous and reckless war in Iraq. May it come soon!

$103 million? Yikes - are these private interests also providing sustainable funding for the operation and maintenance of this visitor center?

Its one thing to build these grand facilities. Its another to maintain the funding necessary to keep them going over time and not become a burden to the park and people they are supposed to serve.

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