When you’re used to something, when your “environment” becomes comfortable, anything that changes about it can be both upsetting and exciting. This applies to a lot of things – home, work, family life – but in this case, I have those feelings regarding the new Visitor Center at Gettysburg, which is opening to the public next week.
For all my visits to Gettysburg, my first stop had been the old Visitor Center (Rosensteel building). Most times, I hardly really needed to go in there… heck, I’ve seen every weapon on display in there a million times (I probably can run the serial numbers of the revolvers off by heart) and visits in the bookstore had me looking around for about an hour at books I either already have or don’t need. The only time I’d buy any would be when an interesting new one came out. I always liked to buy books in the VC bookstore because there was some feeling for me of “buying it at the Park.” I really didn’t have any loyalty to Eastern National (which ran the bookstore) but it just felt “familiar” to buy there.
But a trip to Gettysburg just wouldn’t be complete without going into the VC. I’d come out of there with no new books, didn’t see a display I wasn’t already intimately familiar with, didn’t really experience anything new. But stopping in was a tradition for me as important as taking at least one quiet stroll through the National Cemetery at dusk each visit. If I came home without doing either of those, I’d feel like I missed something.
I’ll be making my first trip to Gettysburg next weekend for the History Meets the Arts event. I have a few book signings around town I have to do, but I’ve always enjoyed this particular weekend. Spring has usually sprung, it’s usually my first visit after a long cold winter, and seeing old friends and taking in the sights charges my batteries up for the season. I live about three hours northwest of Gettysburg and when the weather starts getting nicer about this time of year, one of the things I anticipate is that first trip for History Meets the Arts.
With the opening of the new VC, this trip, of course, will be entirely different compared to decades of early spring visits for me. I’ve been watching the progress of the construction of the buildings over the past year during my visits, and I even got a sneek peak at the restoration of the Cyclorama painting last year with some close Ranger friends of mine. But it’s no longer familiar – giving me those feelings of change and anticipation. There’ll be no more trips into the old VC… hearing those sounds of young children running around among the displays, that voice on the PA system announcing times for the showing of the good ol’ Electric Map, the smell of the bookstore, and the walk across the road to the cemetery.
Yet, I’m very excited about the new facility. Regardless how homey and familiar the old place was, it’s high time Gettysburg gets new digs. The old place was ruining the artifacts, and the horribly-designed Cyc building was ruining the painting (and wasn’t even large enough to display it all). People will (and have begun to) find all sorts of things to criticize about the new facility, but besides the reclamation of much of the battlefield landscape, I don’t think anything more wonderful could have taken place at Gettysburg than the construction of these new facilities. The artifacts will now be properly preserved and displayed, the bookstore promises to be bigger and better, and the research facilities are reportedly world-class.
Next Friday, when I walk up to the front door of the new place, I’ll have to take a deep breath. All that’s familiar will now be new. I’ll walk around inside like a little kid in a brand-new school… nervous, unsure, but hoping I “fit in.” Honestly, I can’t wait.
Eventually, too, once the old buildings are razed and the grounds reclamed as much as possible, that too will be an enormous change. When the old National Tower was taken down a number of years back, the new vista took a while getting used to. When you’re used to seeing that stupid thing in the sky (and even using it as a landmark when you’re at places like East Cavalry Field, etc.) it took a while getting used to not seeing it anymore. The taking down of the buildings and elimination of the parking lots is going to take a while to get used to as well. Not seeing the old VC complex on the right when one drives up Hancock Avenue will be quite a change to the senses for a long time.
For a while, folks will criticize some things about the new place. Most, I think, will fall in love with it like they had the old. Let’s also see how our children – the future of the study of our history – react. If the snazzy new theater draws them into the aura of Gettysburg – the Civil War – our Nation’s sanguinary struggle with itself – then it has accomplished its goal. If they marvel over some of the artifacts and displays like they do their iPods and cell phones, then maybe we’ve captured something inside of them that they’ll hang onto as adults. Kids in the future won’t know what it was like to walk into “our” old Visitor Center, but they’ll have this new one as their own.
So for the next week or so, I’ll look forward to the trip with nervousness, anticipation, and hope. And I’m sure that once I have a chance to check the place out and think about it, at some point (hopefully sooner rather than later) I’ll feel “home” again. After all, it’s all for the veterans who gave their last full devotion, for the preservation of the ground upon which many spent and lost their youth, and for our kids that must carry on after us.