From John Hennessy:
We have written a great deal on Mysteries and Conundrums about the evolution of the park since its founding in 1927 (click here for some of the posts). You may have heard by now that the park has received funding to re-do the exhibits at both the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville visitor centers. To help put this into perspective:
- The existing exhibits were installed during the Centennial of the Civil War, nearly fifty years ago.
- Since then, the park has only once received a comparable amount of funding for any single project intended to enhance the visitor experience–the Sunken Road restoration, completed in 2005. Indeed, the amount of funding for these exhibits probably exceeds ALL of the combined funding available for the development of interpretive media in the last fifty years.
The importance of media–exhibits, films, publications, digital stuff–is often dramatically underestimated. Fewer than 20% of the park’s visitors ever take a guided tour. While that’s still a fair number of people, the fact remains that 80% of our visitors are entirely dependent on media for getting our story, for understanding the significance of what otherwise might appear to be typical Virginia landscapes. As it is, visitors get Civil War History 1960s style–in terms of both design and content. We hope that every one of our visitors who enter one of our buildings will get something out of the new exhibits–at least if we do them well.
[For more on the famous Fredericksburg diorama, click here.]
These exhibits will be the face of the park for probably several decades (we hope not fifty years this time, but it’s reasonable to expect they’ll be there for at least 20). That our generation will get one shot at this helps to emphasize both the importance of and challenges that surrounding the project. Here are some of the issues and decisions we’ll be tackling:
- The span of exhibits at Chancellorsville Visitor Center (CVC as we call it). How much Chancellorsville, and how much Wilderness and Spotsylvania? Do we pin anything on the long-held hope of developing a discrete facility for Wilderness and Spotsylvania? Or do we presume CVC will be it for all three battles?
- To what degree do we incorporate digital technology into the exhibits? This is a huge issue, for two reasons. First, technology can vastly complicate the daily operation of an exhibit by increasing its moving parts, any of which can break down at any point. And while incorporating digital components into these exhibits may seem like a no-brainer in some respects, remember that these exhibits will likely be in place for 20-30 years. How’s that interactive virtual command center going to look in 15 years? We are in an age where something digital done in 2011 will look like my high school hairdo in two or three years. (I do think there are solutions to this, in part by creating the techie components that complement the exhibit instead of being integrated into it–for example, hand-held tablets that visitors can use in conjunction with the exhibits. But more on that another day.)
- Do we divide the existing auditorium at CVC (which seats 110) into two, so we can show both our existing Chancellorsville film and the new film on Wilderness and Spotsylvania we are working on?
- The timeless challenge of creating an exhibit that works for both adults and children, for daily visitors and for students. Students are an immensely important component of our visitation in so many ways.
- How can we best use the cut-up, multi-story space at FVC–a building that in many ways is ill-suited to be a Visitor Center. The confined, linear space we are working with at CVC renders the work there far simpler.
Perhaps the biggest decision about the nature of the exhibits has already been made: these buildings will continue to function as visitor centers whose primary purpose is to inspire people to get out into the park and community to see and experience key historic sites. These visitor centers will NOT be destinations in themselves–as the new Gettysburg VC is, and must be given its origins and management. Our goal in each is to create a 20-30 minute experience (not including films) that serves as a springboard for further exploration beyond the VC’s walls.
Our plan is to have the exhibits at FVC installed before the 150th anniversary of the battle in December 2012 (we are already well into the design process for FVC, having received funding for design last year). Likewise, CVC will be (so goes the plan) by April 2013.
We have an immense amount of work to do in a very short time, and we’ll keep you updated along the way, highlighting dilemmas and decisions that matter. We’re always interested in feedback from you, so don’t hesitate to share bright ideas. The workload associated with this project will, I am sorry to say, probably affect how often some of us can contribute to Mysteries and Conundrums, but I suspect M&C will be no less a joy and relief for us than it has been, and will inexorably pull us back to share the cool things we’re finding and thinking about.