$103 million museum-visitor center to help orient visitors to Gettysburg


Without an itinerary, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the vastness of Gettysburg's battlefield &

a 6,000-acre expanse dotted with nearly 1,400 memorials and monuments to North America's bloodiest battle.

Park officials are hoping that a $103 million museum and visitor center scheduled to open April 14 will give visitors a better starting point for exploring the site where Union armies beat back Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's assault on northern territory, and where Abraham Lincoln delivered his most famous speech.

The complex is a red and gray stone structure reminiscent of a 19th-century barn and covering the equivalent of 21/2 football fields. It is tucked into a wooded area on the Gettysburg National Military Park &

land that saw no major action in the three-day Civil War battle in which more than 51,000 Confederate and Union soldiers were killed, wounded or captured.

It also will provide a new home for the famous "Battle of Gettysburg" cyclorama painting, a 377-foot cylindrical canvas that gives viewers the feeling of being placed in the middle of Pickett's Charge, the climactic clash on the final day of battle.

A team of conservators has been working for the past five years on restoring the 1884 painting to its original condition. It is scheduled to open in September.

The complex is located about two-thirds of a mile southeast of the current visitor center &

built in 1921 and acquired by the National Park Service 50 years later &

and a 1962 building that housed the cyclorama. The cramped, deteriorating facilities are both situated on the Union battle lines on Cemetery Ridge and will be razed as part of a related battlefield restoration project.

In the lobby, an orientation theater will show a three-minute video that provides an overview of the museum, battlefield and town and advises visitors on how to plan their itineraries.

Visitors can also buy tickets to a 22-minute feature film, "A New Birth of Freedom," designed to give them a more vivid sense of the battle's sights and sounds, as well as its aftermath. The movie will be shown by itself initially, and then in conjunction with tours of the cyclorama when the painting opens.

The museum has 11 galleries arranged in chronological order, placing both the battle and the Civil War in the context of American history. Featured artifacts include the door to abolitionist John Brown's jail cell in Harpers Ferry, field camp equipment used by Lee, and a display of artillery shell fragments that illustrates the intensity of the firepower that bombarded Confederate troops during Pickett's Charge.

"It certainly will provide (people) with a much better understanding, and I hope appreciation, for the courage and sacrifice that these men and women displayed at this time in history," said Paul Shevchuk, a park museum specialist.

Interactive touches &

both high- and low-tech &

are scattered throughout the museum.

Visitors can touch a replica of slave shackles and find out for themselves how heavily a soldier's backpack weighed him down. Using touch-screen computers, they can learn how to recognize bugle calls, decode signal corps flag messages, and locate battlefield monuments.

"We only wanted to use technology where we thought it actually helped us tell the story," said Robert C. Wilburn, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Gettysburg Foundation, which has been raising money for the project as part of a broader campaign to improve the park.

Other amenities include multipurpose classrooms, a bookstore and gift shop, and a "refreshment saloon" whose menu includes Civil War-era fare such as hardtack, a hard biscuit made of flour, salt and water and known to resist spoiling as long it was kept dry.

To better preserve the collection of more than 300,000 artifacts and 700,000 documents, maps and photographs, the facility has a new climate-controlled storage area.

And for hardcore historians, a library and reading room containing 6,800 volumes, including 800 rare books, will be open by appointment.

The foundation will operate the new museum and visitor center for the next 20 years. After that, the land and buildings will be donated, debt-free, to the National Park Service.

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