A historic change

From John Hennessy:

A typical exhibit at Fredericksburg.

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 Fredericksburg exhibits are classic examples of media from what the NPS called Mission 66–the 50th anniversary of the NPS in the 1960s.

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.

The fabulous diorama at Fredericksburg, which will be incorporated into the new exhibit.

[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:

A possible floor plan under consideration for the first floor of the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. Click to enlarge.

– 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.


10 thoughts on “A historic change

  1. John, this is great news. You posed a lot of excellent questions and it is refreshing to see you guys get a chance to update that visitor center. I think the biggest challenge you will have is dealing with the chronology of the war as well as how these battles fit into it. When I took some family through your region last summer, we moved onto Antietam and finally, Gettysburg. The biggest problem they had was comprehending the timeline (1862, 1863, 1864, 1864, 1862, 1863). I did not help matters by dragging them through six battlefields in four days. However, I think new enthusiasts tend to struggle with the four major battles in your area and the crucial events that occurred in between them. I do not know how to remedy this. Perhaps a small exhibit (or TV?) in between Chancellorsville and the Wilderness depicting Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, etc. would help. Keep blogging. I love the updates.

    • Ari, I too love the dimensionality of fiberoptic maps. I am afraid that for Fredericksburg we already have a digital option in the can. But for Chancellorsville the slate is uncluttered and open. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. John

  2. John,
    Glad to hear Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania are getting funding to modernize the exhibits. I like your thoughts on technology. It gets outdated very fast today and is a continuous challenge to maintain at its planned level. It’s been a few years since I toured. Do you offer any cell phone audio stops in the battlefield areas? Good luck in your planning and implementation.

    • Thanks Jefferson. We are in the process of packaging our podcasts for delivery in multiple forms. I have long been a bit of a skeptic about cell phone tours (the last thing I want to do when I am at a profound historic site is dial up my cellphone), but for some people they are an option that works, and we will be looking at that as one mode of delivery. We have an good bundle of podcasts available already (there’s a link on the main page of this blog), and will be adding to it this spring.

      • Thanks for the reply. Understandable about cell phones. I can remember a tour of Antietam a few years ago. I was walking across the “Burnside” bridge. Behind me was a fellow talking very loudly on his phone. It diminished the “sacredness” of the experience.

  3. John – thanks for this info. I was wondering how you were going to start tackling such a large project. I do want to say that I come with 2 elementary school (read that to be techno geeks and a good target market) grandchildren if you’re in need of focus groups or evaluations. I do think it’s going to be important to look at what the youngest verbal generation thinks is interesting and incorporate as much as possible. While I can begin to understand the complexity of the timeline as Scott mentioned above, that’s a perfect example of challenging information to convey. Certainly the movies have been a huge improvement in capturing that age group’s attention. Please DO let me know if and how we can help.

  4. I think the most important question you have to answer is the Technology question. Technology is a tempting siren, and no doubt you could put together an impressive display with 2011 technology. However, I don’t think it is possible for you to over-state the significance of your “what if”… that of very little future funding.

    There is nothing more disappointing than to enter a museum and see broken, inoperative displays. We’ve all experienced that, and it’s worse than if nothing was there at all.

    You have 50 years of history to study the lack of funding for exhibit refresh, there is nothing that I am aware of to indicate any different circumstances in the future, and in fact quite the opposite. I would be less confident of future funds now than at any point in recent memory.

    My hope is that you use these funds to build exhibits that will be “cost free” for the next 20 years. Use all the technology you have at your disposal to build the final products, but don’t build us exhibits that will fail for lack of refresh funds in just a few years.

  5. Hi John,

    Congratulations, that’s great news. I think you are already well on your way to incorporating technology into your exhibits. It seems to me that the best way that museums have been using technology is to follow the user when they leave the visitor center using podcasts, blogs, and other social media tools. Keep them engaged and thinking critically about what they learned. Of course, the visitor center is the hook. I think that touch-screens are a relatively easy technology to maintain. Also, I just learned that more museums are using barcodes, which visitors can scan with their smartphones. The barcode contains a link to the park website where they can learn more about the artifact or image that they are looking at. This provides visitors with an opportunity to expand their experience, and you can keep adding to the information on the website (Read More: http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/columns/practice/guided-barcodes)

    Good luck.


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