- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

America’s most famous battlefield is commemorated by one of the nation’s worst museums.The cyclorama is falling apart, there’s not enough exhibit space and, perhaps worst of all, the parking lot of the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center has paved over one of the key positions on the Pennsylvania battlefield.

Now, a private foundation dedicated to preserving the site of the 1863 battle is preparing for a four-year, $95 million campaign to build a new, state-of-the-art museum dedicated to the battle that is considered by most military historians as the turning point for Union forces in the Civil War.

“The current facilities sit right on the battlefield, the scenes of some of the bloodiest fighting,” said Robert C. Wilburn, president of the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation.

The existing museum, first built as a private residence in 1921, is located on the famous “fishhook” Union defensive line. Tourists now park their minivans on asphalt covering the spot between Ziegler’s Grove and Cemetery Hill where hundreds of soldiers were killed in combat.

The new museum will be located farther south and east, between Taneytown Road and Baltimore Pike, where it will be “invisible,” leaving the view of the battlefield unobstructed.

“The way the terrain runs, [the new site is] about 65 feet below the average terrain of the area,” Mr. Wilburn said. “We can situate the building so it will not be visible from anywhere on the battlefield, and that’s our goal. … The archaeology has been done, and no fighting occurred on this land.”

After the new museum is completed — Mr. Latschar expects to break ground on the two-year construction project in late 2004 — the old museum will be demolished and that site restored to 1863 conditions.

The new museum site — with exteriors designed to resemble 19th-century farm buildings — will allow the park to consolidate its offices in one location and provide adequate parking for the 1.7 million visitors who come to Gettsyburg each year.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the new facility will be a restored and enhanced presentation of the 1884 cyclorama, French artist Paul Philippoteaux’s depiction of Pickett’s Charge, the massive Confederate assault that was the climax of the three-day battle.

The gigantic circular painting once measured 50 feet high but now is only 26 feet high — the sky was cut off at some point in the past 120 years. The painting also lost the three-dimensional diorama that once formed its foreground. And what’s left of it is in bad shape, Mr. Wilburn said.

“According to the conservation report, if we’d waited several years, it would have been impossible to save it,” he said. “The backing is almost completely gone on the painting, and the only thing that’s holding the painting together is the repairs that were done in the ‘60s.”

In the new museum, the painting will be restored as close to its original condition as possible, giving visitors the feeling of being in the midst of the battle.

“To me it’s exciting because it’s not just that you create this wonderful visual immersion, but historically … for 25 years, the cyclorama was a major form of entertainment in this country and around the world,” Mr. Wilburn said. “And there’s just very few of these things left — just two in this country, the one in Atlanta [depicting a key 1864 battle] and this one.”

The Civil War remains a subject of fascination and controversy. John Latschar, superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park, says the park had been getting about 1.2 million visitors a year until a 1990 public TV documentary directed by Ken Burns and the 1993 movie “Gettysburg” boosted interest in the war, increasing the annual number of visitors to 1.7 million.

Park officials are sensitive to how the war is portrayed. Last year, Mr. Latschar gave an interview to a wire service reporter that he says created the mistaken impression that the new museum would reinterpret history to portray Southerners as Nazis.

“I told [the reporter] we are going to design an interpretive museum,” Mr. Latschar said, contrasting that with the current “curator’s museum” devoted to the display of historic objects. “He asked me what my favorite example of an interpretive museum is, and I answered him … the Holocaust Museum. They do an absolutely magnificent job of telling a story.”

Coupled with an “inflammatory” headline, Mr. Latschar said, the article angered even “many of my good buddies from the Sons of Confederate Veterans who know me personally. …

“As soon as the … article came out, I knew we were in trouble.”

The article led to Mr. Latschar being denounced by columnist Pat Buchanan, among others.

Such passionate feelings about a battle fought 140 years ago demonstrate America’s enduring fascination with the war.

“There’s something that resonates about it,” Mr. Latschar said. “I get hundreds of letters a year from people talking about what their great-great-grandpappy did [in the battle].”

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