Gettysburg has been a magnet for visitors ever since scavengers began scouring the land for dead soldiers' weapons, knapsacks and belt buckles shortly after the epic Civil War battle ended there in July 1863.
But many who traipse around the rolling countryside, gaze at monuments to fallen generals and shop for souvenirs end up leaving the area without knowing exactly what they have seen or why it is important.
Starting today, visitors will have a new way to learn about the Battle of Gettysburg and the role it played in U.S. history, when a $103 million Museum and Visitor Center opens at the Gettysburg National Military Park.
The building replaces a 1960s-era visitors center by Richard Neutra that is targeted for demolition. A famous cyclorama painting from the old visitor center, titled The Battle of Gettysburg, has been undergoing restoration and will go on display at the new center next fall.
The opening marks the culmination of eight years of planning and construction aimed at enhancing the visitor experience for more than 1.7 million people a year who go to the site where Union armies defeated Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces in the battle that raged from July 1 to July 3, 1863, and where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his best-known speech, what became known as the Gettysburg Address, on Nov. 19, 1863.
The museum is part of a series of completed and proposed changes at Gettysburg, along with demolition of a private tower, restoration of key portions of the battlefield to their 1863 appearance and acquisition of more land to preserve vistas. It's part of a national trend in which stewards of historic sites such as Mount Vernon, Monticello and Fort McHenry are making improvements to tell richer stories about what happened there and why it matters today.
In Pennsylvania, the goal is to make Gettysburg a "classroom of democracy" by presenting the story of the Battle of Gettysburg in the context of the Civil War, its causes and consequences. More than 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured during the three days of fighting.
The visitor center has been designed to immerse visitors in the Gettysburg story by exposing them to the National Park Service's extensive collection of war objects, artifacts and archival materials, as well as interactive exhibits and displays that will prepare them to tour the areas where the fighting took place.
"It focuses not just on what happened here but why it happened here," said Robert C. Wilburn, president and chief executive officer of the Gettysburg Foundation, which worked with the National Park Service to complete the project. "It really helps people have a deeper appreciation and a better understanding of the lasting experience of Gettysburg."
Wilburn said the museum and visitor center were constructed not so much for Civil War buffs who are likely to go to Gettysburg no matter what and appreciate it, but for people who have little knowledge of Civil War history and need more help understanding what took place. Many people know from their school days that Gettysburg was significant, he said, "but they don't understand why."
What Gettysburg has over other Civil War sites is its location, its preserved battlefield, and its artifacts, Wilburn said. "What was lacking was putting it together in a way that people who don't have a strong background in the subject could appreciate it more. ... We hope the new museum and visitor center excites visitors of all ages about the lessons of the Civil War and inspires them to learn more about the historic events that have shaped America."
One highlight today will be a flag-raising ceremony to honor America's fallen heroes, organized by the White House Commission on Remembrance.
In an event called "Old Glory's Journey of Remembrance," a flag that flew over the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, is taking a six-month tour of 25 historic battlefields and cemeteries, ending at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Memorial Day. Before flying in Gettysburg today, it flew over Independence Hall in Philadelphia, at Valley Forge, Pa., and Fort McHenry, among other locations.
The new museum and visitor center is next to the battlefield but located at a low point in the land so it won't be visible from major interpretive points. It occupies ground that saw no major battle action. Its appearance is reminiscent of barns and other farm buildings that dot the countryside in southern Pennsylvania.
Inside are 12 exhibit galleries linked thematically to the words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; a theater that presents a film titled A New Birth of Freedom; interactive stations; a resource room; refreshment area; museum bookstore; library and classrooms.
The cyclorama, painted in 1883 and 1884 by French artist Paul Philippoteaux and 20 others, depicts the charge of Confederate soldiers led by Gen. George Pickett on July 3, 1863. Considered an example of state of the art "entertainment" in the Victorian era, it has been moved to the visitor center and is scheduled to go on public display starting Sept. 26.
Cooper Robertson & Partners of New York provided the conceptual design for the museum and visitor center. LSC Design Inc. of York, Pa., is the architect of record. Kinsley Construction of York was the construction manager. Gallagher and Associates of Bethesda was the exhibit designer and sign designer for the museum. Olin Conservation of Great Falls, Va., is the conservator of the cyclorama painting.