Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Fascinating And Important Debate On The Role of Civil War Battlefield Visitor Centers

As I have written about, the new Gettysburg Visitor Center has recently opened, and not without some controversy. Along with the opening of this state of the art facility, a question about the role of this center and others in education and interpretation of their specific battle and the war in general has come to the fore.
I refer you please to two outstanding summaries on the issue. First is from Brett Schulte at TOCWOC, another is from Paul Taylor at With Sword and Pen. Briefly, the controversy swirls around whether a battlefield interpretation should be focused solely on the battle itself or include larger issues, such as slavery and emancipation, in the discussion. As you may imagine, there are strong opinions from very bright minds on both sides of the subject. (Note, the "emancipation cause" that Brett references comes from a fantastic recent book by Gary Gallagher called "Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten". I read it when it first came out and I highly recommend it.)
This is a complex question, and I do not fall on either the "only battle, all the time" or "the whole war at every site" sides, as they are too polarized and too many opportunities for learning and education would be missed. Brett's point of selecting certain sites to showcase pertinent issues beyond the battle itself, (causes of war at Ft. Sumter and Appomattox, slavery and emancipation at Antietam, etc) is well taken, but I would add further that we must address the issue of geography.
These visitor centers have many responsibilities, and a primary one is education. We have addressed the Lost Cause mythology and the pervasiveness of it's erroneous theories, and so when students of the war (at any age, any level of interest or expertise) come to a battlefield, there is an opportunity for education. Some of the people that visit, like myself, come from some great distance to get there and may not be able to see multiple locations in one visit. It would be a shame, therefore, to miss out on educational opportunities for those who are clearly interested.
A solution that could reconcile the two views in this argument, would be something like a standardized National Park Service reference list, with websites, books, and other parks listed under heading of various subjects pertinent to the war. That way, not only would each park maintain the integrity of the battle it is representing, but each one would be united and integrated into a larger whole.
The key point to buttress this suggestion is to remember that these battles didn't occur in a vacuum, so these parks shouldn't exist in one either.
This way, when someone visits for example, the Battle of the Wilderness Park (which is high on my list), they would not have the focus of their visit diluted with subjects not germane to the battle itself, but when in the visitor's center, could avail themselves of a host of resources for questions that may have come up on any number of issues.
The key point here is dissemination of information to as many people as possible, and battlefield and museum visitors are a huge part of this, as these folks are clearly interested. There is an implicit responsibility to promote learning, so I feel that the opportunity to educate should be seized.

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