Friday, August 2, 2013

My Trip to Gettysburg

I visited Gettysburg National Military Park last week. It was a last-minute trip thought up the day before I would take a major roadtrip to see family (I would be traveling with my sister and brother-in-law and we decided to break up the 13-hour trip with some form of a stop... I was elated when they agreed to Gettysburg). I figured this visit would reflect that, more or less, of a "regular" visitor. Especially after reading a particularly entertaining argument of why museum professionals make poor visitors (mostly because it is so true), I would *try* to put myself in my regular-self-just-here-just-because shoes.

We started on the right track of being "average" visitors by getting lost. I wish I were kidding, but I am geographically challenged... and was the navigator. After arriving over half an hour after our intended arrival time (we had only about three hours to visit), we were able to get into the next showing for the theater and cyclorama. The film is well done, for sure (narrated by Morgan Freeman, "spared no expense"*). The cyclorama is "cool," too.

Confession: I totally blanked out whenever the film told the story of the actual battle and involved troop movements. I was more distracted by the idea of the filmmaker chose to relay battle scenes: fire, silhouettes, close-up shots, and dramatic music. These techniques are fairly common for filmmakers to use when showing battle scenes for a family-friendly visitor center. OH WAIT. THERE I GO AGAIN. I realized I was assessing too much and reset myself to regular-visitor mode before entering the cyclorama. The cyclorama is an absolutely fascinating piece of Gettysburg history, considering its artwork and influence. What caught my regular-visitor-lens attention? The fact that the crowd made me feel claustrophobic and this:

"The music swells dramatically to an intense crescendo of drums."
I read the closed captioning experience for the entirety of the show and could not help be amused with some of the descriptions, ESPECIALLY about the music. "The music swells dramatically to an intense crescendo of drums." Intense crescendo!? What better way to indicate to 21st century audiences that they should be serious because what is being told to them is serious!? Serious music, of course!


Onward to the museum! At this point, we were nearly two hours into our Gettysburg experience and I wondered what my family's attention span was doing. I will admit (again, I will likely get scowls for this): the museum was so jamb-packed with sensory overload, I was breezing through. I can't focus with sound bites competing with movies competing with cool stuff on display with so much to read. My sister admitted that nature was calling so she breezed through with me. I did rather enjoy the exhibit about the early development of the park, complete with an early guide's uniform. We can just call it "my personal connection" to the story. Between working for the National Park Service and having researched so much on early battlefield park development, I smiled when I saw the exhibit. I don't know if that was my visitor-lens or my historian-lens or a combination of both.

I appreciated the room on Gettysburg memory,
especially the part about park development. 

My favorite room also appeared the only room that other visitors seemed to breeze through (and the only room where I spent some time). At the end of the museum before visitors exit is a space designed for contemplation. It features the Gettysburg Address etched into a window with benches for sitting and reading. For me, it was way to tie the museum with the actual place, ideas to the events.

The Gettysburg Address etched onto a window for contemplation.
We exited the museum only to see the crowds start gathering as the day progressed. After the museum visit we took a short stop at the national cemetery. We walked the loop. We contemplated. I personally tried to harken back 150 years ago to that moment. I thought of all the "unfinished work" that had yet to be started. I thought of rotting, bloated bodies. I thought of the wounded, crying out in delirium. I thought of victors. I thought of losers. I thought of battle-shaken survivors and a town filled with trauma. I would like to say those were my visitor thoughts, not my historian thoughts.

But you know what? I only contemplated those things because I had done all the research, read the accounts, and have (in the past) immersed myself in post-battle first-hand accounts. My contemplation time did not give those solemn and disheartening ideas justice. I only had a brief moment to think of those things! I was on vacation! I was about to spend the weekend at a family reunion with people I love! I was visiting the park with some of my favorite people and our time together was short! I consider Gettysburg one of those places that end up being on the list of places "We Have To Visit As an American Family During A Roadtrip" or it at least it is stereotyped as such. I sense I am not the only visitor to have a short visit with conflicting feelings. I know I should stay longer or think harder, but we have got to get a move on. And so we did.

As interpreters, we have to find that balance between knowing the audience (and understanding visitor experience) and knowing the resource. That's what we are taught. However, sometimes trying to bridge the gap between the two feels like nearly impossible task. Especially after learning how hard it is to be a visitor myself.

*I cannot speak for the actual expense or the park's film budget.