Gettysburg's Soldiers National Museum will close its doors for good on Sunday, November 2. The contents of the museum will be auctioned off November 21 and 22. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)
GETTYSBURG, PA. — — Thousands of soldiers have been massing inside a building in this historic town for decades. But after Sunday, no more.
The Soldier's National Museum and its regiments of toy soldiers, housed in a building that predates the Civil War and has been a museum of one sort or another since the 1950s, is shutting its doors for good Sunday afternoon — the victim, its owner says, of a culture that demands a more dynamic, interactive, hands-on experience for its museum dollar.
"You have to stay relevant, and that's difficult with all the changing technology and expectations," says Max T. Felty, who bought the museum in 2011. "That's where you have to keep making changes and look at different ways of doing things."
For Felty, closing the museum and selling off its contents — they'll be going under the auctioneer's gavel Nov. 21-22, across the street at the 1863 Inn of Gettysburg — is strictly a business decision. He's aware many people have emotional ties to the museum that go back decades, to the years when it was owned by entertainer Cliff Arquette (better known by his stage name, Charley Weaver) and housed Civil War figurines Arquette had carved himself. In fact, Felty has his own personal connection to the museum — his father, Ronald L. Felty, who died in 2009, had bought into its ownership group in the 1980s.
But the Soldier's Museum's days are past, Felty is convinced. And the building itself, which dates to the mid-1800s and once served as an orphanage for children left fatherless by the war, will remain. In fact, he plans to restore the facade so that it more closely resembles what it would have looked like when the Battle of Gettysburg raged for three days at the beginning of July 1863. Beyond that, the building's future is undecided, he says.
"There's definitely a legacy here," says Felty, who as president of Gettysburg Tours Inc. also owns and operates the adjacent Hall of Presidents & First Ladies and the nearby Jennie Wade House, famous as the home of the only Gettysburg civilian killed during the battle. "I certainly want to do right by the town and the history of the town. But at the end of the day, you have to make a business decision. And this is a business decision."
The Jennie Wade House and the Hall of Presidents are safe for now, as is the tour bus company he also runs, Felty says. They are still attracting plenty of visitors, he says, something the Soldier's Museum hasn't done for years.
Many small museums, which don't have the government or corporate financial support enjoyed by the larger nonprofits, are struggling to keep up with the changing demands of their visitors. And while a museum closing is relatively rare, many operators are taking a hard look at what they do and seeing if adaptations are in order.
"There's no question that interactive exhibits are a mainstay today," says Ford Bell, president of the 4,000-member American Alliance of Museums. "Technological wizardry brings a lot to the experience."
The most successful history museums, Bell says, are those with an authentic connection to the events they represent. "Kids are very engaged with authentic objects; they know they tell a very important story," he says.
While the Soldier's Museum is housed in a building that served as a Union general's headquarters during the battle, many of the artifacts inside have nothing to do with the Civil War and don't date from the period.
Certainly, other Gettysburg museums tell similar stories. But the Jennie Wade House has the holes in the doors through which the deadly bullet passed. The David Wills House, off Gettysburg's town square, has the room where Abraham Lincoln slept the night before giving the Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg battlefield itself has history everywhere one looks.
A revamped and enlarged $103 million National Park Service Visitors Center, which opened in 2008 and attracts between 1 million and 1.2 million visitors annually, offers movies, interactive exhibits and plenty of other high-tech bells and whistles. And the nonprofit Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum, which opened in July 2013, has both state-of-the-art displays and the advantages that come with being the new kid on the tourist block.
By contrast, the Soldier's Museum displays decades-old Civil War dioramas, hundreds of battle artifacts dating back to Viking days (some are reproductions, although they're often not clearly labeled as such) and thousands of toy soldiers, all safely out of reach behind glass. The museum hasn't changed substantially since Felty bought it — or even in the three decades before that.
Visiting the museum is a decidedly old-school experience that fewer and fewer people have been taking advantage of. While attendance spiked in 2013, during the sesquicentennial celebration of the Battle of Gettysburg, it's otherwise been on the decline for several years. Manager Rose Little, who's been taking care of the museum and its contents for about eight years, says attendance might climb to 120 or so on a Friday or Saturday. On other days, she says, she's lucky if 50 visitors show up.
But that doesn't make its closing any easier to take, she says.
"This, to me, is home," says Little, 75, who grew up in nearby Hanover. "We've been getting a lot of visitors since the closing was announced, and most people are telling me it's really a shame, because it's really a nice museum. And I say, 'Where were you when I wanted you?' "
The museum sits at 777 Baltimore St., just across from and slightly south of the Jennie Wade House. Its 2,500 square feet of exhibit space is squeezed into two floors; most of the artifacts are housed behind glass panels, with explanatory text printed on white cards. There's also a re-creation of a Confederate campsite squeezed into the building's east end; a small alcove with displays about the building's history; and a handful of dioramas depicting significant battles of the war.
In a nod to the building's days as an orphanage, one of the odder exhibits is a hole in the floor where one can peer down and see a mannequin, looking like a desperately unhappy child, peering back up from what looks like a dungeon. (Little wonder the building is a prominent stop on the popular Gettysburg Ghost Tours.)
Occasionally, there's a button to push for a recorded explanation of what one is looking at, but that's about as high-tech as the museum gets. And save for what's on sale in the gift shop, everything is strictly hands-off.
For the past several weeks, ever since the closing was announced at the beginning of October, a steady stream of old friends — many of whom haven't set foot inside the museum in years — have been stopping by. Some are angry, Little says, but most seem resigned to the museum's fate. It's not easy letting go of something that's been around for more than half a century.
"We wanted to come and see the Soldier's Museum one last time before it leaves," says Harold Gentzler, 58, of York, Pa., who stopped by on a recent Friday to say his goodbyes. "Yeah, it's disappointing. But I guess as they say, [attendance] has been decreasing over the years, and you just can't keep something open that isn't doing what it needs to do."
His partner of 24 years, Karen Librandi, 64, has been coming here since she was a little girl; she guesses she's paid her admission and wandered through the exhibits about a dozen times. Librandi likes the pace the museum encourages, likes to take her time and quietly soak in what's on display. But she suspects that that approach is a little antiquated these days.
"I think people are looking for things that more jump out and grab you," she says. "Our children are too busy with things on computers and the Internet. Things like this don't grab their attention."
Gentzler says he might stop by the auction, maybe see about picking up a piece or two to help him remember the old place. But not Librandi. "I don't want to see that," she says quietly.
Like most visitors, the couple take a few minutes to look at a special exhibit just beyond the doorway leading in from the gift shop. On a shelf are about three dozen carved figures from the days when this building housed what was known as Charley Weaver's Museum, a showcase for the carved figures Arquette painstakingly crafted.
Arquette, who died in 1974, was a well-known comic in his day. His Charley Weaver character, a down-home country type who delighted in telling tales of his hometown of Mount Idy and reading his "Letters from Mamma," was a staple on talk and variety shows throughout the '60s and early '70s. He was a regular on the original "Hollywood Squares."
Arquette also helped establish a Hollywood dynasty. His grandchildren include actors Alexis, David, Patricia, Rosanna and Richmond Arquette.
"I do remember the museum," Rosanna Arquette writes in an email. "I know that my grandfather believed that he was the reincarnation of a Confederate soldier, but his politics in this lifetime were vastly different from that time. … He was very obsessed with his paintings and drawings. It was as if he needed to remember.
"I remember going there once and taking a picture with my grandfather."
And like many who enjoyed her grandfather's work, Arquette's reaction to the news of the Soldier's Museum's demise is simple and heartfelt.
The Soldier's National Museum, at 777 Baltimore St. in Gettysburg, Pa., will be open through Sunday, Nov. 2. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission is $7.50, $3.50 for ages 6-12, free for kids 5 and under. Information: 717-334-4890 or gettysburgbattlefieldtours.com.