The visitor center at Chancellorsville is nearing the half century mark. The decision to build adjacent to the site of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding has certainly influenced how the battlefield is viewed and interpreted. Park staff hoped to avoid impacts to the “heart of the battlefield” at Hazel Grove and Fairview. In the process, the site of Jackson’s wounding was, to some extent, elevated in the interpretive story.
Due to the visitor center’s location, the story of Jackson’s wounding gets more attention than any other site on the battlefield. At the visitor center, park visitors have the benefit of knowledgeable staff and receive personal attention and services, which certainly results in a higher visitation there than anywhere else. The only place at Chancellorsville where regularly guided tours are offered is at the visitor center and those tours are site specific, focusing on the wounding of Jackson. If the visitor center were located anywhere else, the tours would probably likewise be focused elsewhere. As a result, it’s safe to say that visitors receive more interpretation and understand the site associated with the events on the evening of May 2, 1863 than they do those of any other location or day of the battle.
The visitor center was criticized for both its location and its architectural style. As explained in an earlier post, the construction of the visitor center resulted in the destruction of a portion of the historic Mountain Road. Given the amount of land that the park had access to in 1958, the location for a new visitor center was not easy. In weighing their options, park planners chose to avoid what they deemed to be the scene of significant fighting at Hazel Grove and Fairview. The impact to the Jackson wounding site was unfortunate, but what would have been the result had the planners gone with the original plan of building a complex near Hazel Grove?
The visitor center has also been criticized for its architectural style. The Mission 66 modernism was, and is, felt by many to be inappropriate for national parks. When first built, the visitor center was in striking contrast to the “rustic” nature of earlier park facilities, as well as its natural and wooded location. Since its construction, the park has allowed the vegetation to grow up around the structure, and coupled with the low profile of the building, perhaps it does a better job now of blending into its surroundings.
How does the visitor center function almost fifty years later? A recent criticism of the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center is the relevancy of its exhibits. The same static interpretive displays that were initially planned and installed are still there today.
These exhibits reflect interpretive themes that were important half a century ago, but which may not be deemed terribly significant today. For example, there exists an entire display case devoted to harness-making.
A look at the 1959 museum prospectus shows that the decision for this exhibit resulted from the simple fact that the park received the displayed artifacts as a gift. The items had at one time belonged to a soldier who served, as a harness maker, in Stonewall Jackson’s command. The author’s of the museum prospectus felt that given the soldier’s “association with Jackson, this is an excellent exhibit for the Chancellorsville Visitor Center.” Forty-seven years later, the exhibit remains.
The park has made some improvements to the center’s exhibits. A display of uniforms worn by two men who were wounded at Chancellorsville now stands outside the auditorium. In the last couple months, two new exhibits have been installed, replacing some of the Mission 66 exhibits.
The slide orientation programs were replaced with 22-minute film devoted to the Battle of Chancellorsville. The museum portion of the visitor center likely needs a complete overhaul in order to update the exhibits to reflect more current research and scholarly trends in interpretation.
The visitor center is also showing its age. Over the years, the building has undergone some minor renovations in response to changes in use and federal laws and guidelines for public facilities. The park removed one of the park offices in the building and expanded the bookstore about fifteen years ago. More recently, the restrooms were expanded, making them more handicapped accessible. The building was also constructed for the purpose of housing the park’s curatorial collection. Curatorial storage is in the basement of the visitor center, which has proven prone to flooding. Storing artifacts in this kind of environment may have been acceptable fifty years ago, but with a growing collection and concerns for its preservation and protection, the facility no longer serves its desired purpose.
While there are no current plans, nor any funding, for a new visitor center at Chancellorsville, it is something that we, the park staff, occasionally daydream about. The opportunity to start from scratch with revitalized and relevant exhibits, interpretation, to correct failings of the current building, both functionally and structurally, and perhaps find a more sensitive and suitable location, are all things that are contemplated.
That said, I’d like to pose a theoretical conundrum to you all. If you had the chance, and the funding, to build a new Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, where might you put it? Please take into consideration the following: 1) potential impacts to the battlefield landscape; 2) possible interpretive opportunities; 3) accessibility from current traffic patterns. Below is a map, showing the current NPS holdings (green shaded areas) at Chancellorsville. Think creatively. Give me your thoughts. I’m curious what you might consider a good site.
Eric J. Mink