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Gettysburg is popular, but not protected
Sitting down in the auditorium of the Gettysburg National Military Park visitors center is a trip back in time - to 1963, not 1863.
The "Electric Map" experience includes Kennedy-era gray metal chairs, the droning voice of a middle school health class film narrator and tiny light bulbs blinking across a 30-by-30 foot topographical layout.
"It's desperately outdated. And it has a terrible nickname in these parts. They call it 'The Electric Nap.' There are many school students that simply fall asleep the minute the lights dim," said park spokesman Katie Lawhon.
Outside isn't much better. On Steinwehr Avenue there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken a few hundred feet from granite memorials marking "the high tide of the Confederacy." Preservationists rejoiced when a 393-foot observation tower came down in 2000. But the National Park Service battlefield is still surrounded by T-shirt shops that would easily fit on Virginia Beach's boardwalk.
Historic landmarks are struggling to hold the attention of multimedia Americans who can watch SportsCenter updates on their cell phones. Virginia is dotted with historic museums and landmarks testing new approaches to telling their stories. How well they all manage to engage the public will answer this fundamental question: Are historic sites ... history?
The new Gettysburg center fits with the boom in construction at other historical landmarks attempting to speak to modern Americans in their own language. Today's visitors don't stop to read the hundreds of battlefield monuments; they rent the driving tour audiotape. They want a story told well to connect the important facts in an easy way, and many museums are spending millions to give it to them.
Gettysburg has the opposite problem of many of Virginia's destinations: The battlefield gets plenty of visitors fired by the latest Civil War movie or book or History Channel special, but the hallowed ground has had little protection from commercial development. It has the feel of a city's well-worn neighborhood park. Cars and tour buses crowd around a 1920 visitor center that was designed to handle 70,000 people a year, not the 1.7 million it gets.
"Where we are right now - in this outdated visitor center and next door where we have a building called the Cyclorama building - we are right on the Union battle line," Lawhon said. "They fought where our parking lot is right now. People fought and died here."
The private Gettysburg Foundation, run now by former Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Robert Wilburn, is trying to fix the site. The foundation has raised $95 million toward its $125 million goal to pay for demolition of outdated buildings, construction of a state-of-the-art visitor center and restoration of part of the battlefield to its 1863 appearance. Fences will come back and orchards will be replanted.
"The more interactive the experience, the more personally involved they become and the greater the chance that it will matter to them. At Gettysburg, the real key is getting people onto the battlefield with some understanding of its significance," Wilburn said.
The new visitor center is slated to open next spring. Seven different films - including one by the woman who created the centerpiece "Freedom Rising" show at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia - will play within its 139,000 square feet to explain the meaning of the battle. (Virginia fifth-graders are required to know that it was the turning point of the Civil War.)
"Frankly, a lot of our visitors today, they come and they go and they figure that since Gettysburg was so huge and so important, it must have decided the Civil War. They tend to leave not realizing the war went on for more than two more years," Lawhon said.
Chris Paas, 38, was one of those. He brought his 8-year-old son to Gettysburg as a stop on a spring break trip to Washington, D.C., but he admitted his own favorite class in school used to be gym. Does he remember anything he learned in school about Gettysburg?
"Not much at all. Just the magnitude of it and how many people were here. It was crazy. It was huge," Paas said. "I can't really remember much about it, what was taught."
When his son was asked what he had learned about Gettysburg on their visit, he said, "That my dad is dragging me around everywhere" and ran off to another part of Little Round Top, an important position at the end of the Union lines on Day 2 of the battle.
The battlefield can seem like a long string of statues to a third- grader. The park began in 1895 and was run by the War Department even before the National Park Service was established. Veterans groups paid for monuments to mark their place in the pivotal battle, so now the battlefield can be described as the world's largest outdoor sculpture garden. It has more than 1,300 monuments and over 400 cannon - and no plans to get rid of those because they are part of history themselves now, Lawhon said.
Wilburn thinks the land around the statuary will always retain its power, even if all the new multimedia presentations in the new visitor center someday migrate to the Internet or an iPhone.
"I just want people to learn something of the significance of the battle. I don't care if they do it at home or at the museum, but there's no way to duplicate being at the actual site. The real thing is something to behold. You can't really understand this unless you can feel the terrain," he said.
And the reality is that multimedia has already helped Gettysburg. Ken Burns' Civil War documentary and the Ted Turner movie "Gettysburg" helped visitation grow 60 percent from 1980 to 2001 and made this the most-visited Civil War battlefield. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks hurt Gettysburg like every other historic attraction, so visitation is down 8 percent from 2002 to 2007, Lawhon said.
"We have a long term view. Our mission is to preserve this place for future generations. We don't get too hung up on the annual visitation statistics," she said. "We're in it for more than that. It's a public service to preserve Gettysburg."
The new visitor center will better preserve and display the park's 38,000 artifacts - the largest publicly owned Civil War collection. The 1920 visitor center can show only 8 percent of the pieces, and storage conditions were so bad that seven years ago a relative of the original collector sued the National Park Service to get items back. The lawsuit was unsuccessful.
Improvements at the new center will be as basic as better parking for charter buses and better orientation.
"Right now we kind of fail on that because our space is so bad. It's overcrowded. It's a little hard to find your way through Gettysburg on your own," Lawhon said. The new center will have separate entrances for group tours and for individual visitors, "to try to make it feel a little less like you're back on the fifth grade bus."
At least one sixth-grader comes back voluntarily. Shawne Kulick from Philadelphia was on his fifth trip to Gettysburg this spring. He became interested in the story because his grandfather played soldiers with him, and Shawne made his first trip when he was six. He's done the car audiotour three times and likes getting the details of where the snipers were.
"We study history (in school), but we really don't actually go into this depth about it. Like, we learn about the battles and who was in them, but we don't know where the lines were and all that," he said.
Or where the KFC is.