This weekend’s grand-opening celebration of a $103 million visitor/museum facility in Gettysburg is prompting some Richmonders to consider whether the project could be a model for Richmond.
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaching in 2011, the potential for commemorative tourism is significant in both places, even though they appeal in different ways.
Gettysburg stands alone in the nation’s psyche as a place of both devastation and healing. As capital of the Confederacy, Richmond for some is a symbol of the nation’s lingering divisions, though it also has success stories to tell.
“Gettysburg, they refer to it as hallowed ground,” said Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. “It’s a story of tremendous loss — people came back there to remember the fallen and also this amazing address that the president gave there. It’s the common ground.
“Richmond does not have that vibe for a lot of people. Part of that relates to the fact that a lot of its history has not been conciliatory.”
“I don’t think anything would ever truly compete with Gettysburg,” said S. Waite Rawls, president of the Museum of the Confederacy. “It was the biggest battle and most famous battle of the Civil War. Preservation efforts started during the war. The battlefields . . . around Richmond are as important if not more so, but they’re scattered all over.
“One of the lessons learned from Gettysburg, you need to make things easily accessible, with parking and signage and all those things, and we have not done that in Richmond.”
Creating a Gettysburg-type visitor experience in Richmond would require a public-private partnership similar to the Gettysburg Foundation. The Richmond National Battlefield Park and the American Civil War Center, adjacent to each other at Tredegar Iron Works, would be a possible starting point.
“My sense is that Tredegar is the perfect spot to do that,” said David Ruth, superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield Park. “It would require an expansion of the facilities down there to do a more thorough story. We just don’t have the space to do the kind of thing they were able to accomplish in Gettysburg.”
Ruth and Coleman toured the new Gettysburg museum together in July. Coleman sees the two Richmond museums as telling different aspects of the same story, the park service focusing on Richmond and her museum giving a national perspective.
“From a visitor’s point of view, it’s all connected,” she said. “We are putting our heads together to have a master plan. Gettysburg is a very good model.”
One possible addition at Tredegar would be an “experience theater. Among the stories we are discussing for dramatic purposes is the evacuation of Richmond,” she said. “There are some amazing stories. It allows us to keep our perspectives in there as well: Union, Confederate and African-American.”
When developing plans for the Gettysburg museum, foundation officials visited the Richmond battlefield park, the American Civil War Center and The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier at Pamplin Historical Park, said Robert C. Wilburn, president of the Gettysburg Foundation and former head of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia.
“I would no way take away from the strength that Richmond has and should have in telling the story,” he said. “I think there are some good steps that have been made at Tredegar. The other gem there is the Virginia Historical Society. It’s a wonderful institution with incredible collections. You put together that institution with Tredegar and the Museum of the Confederacy, and you have an awful lot to build on.”
In Civil War terms alone, Richmond also is the center of a network of Civil War Trails that now has spread to five states and 800 sites.
“We were never in it to build another museum,” such as the new Gettysburg museum, said Jack Berry, president of the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, which houses the Civil War Trails project. “What we needed to do was market them collectively. It’s a huge success.”
Rawls is learning from Gettysburg as he plans to build partner museums at Chancellorsville, Appomattox and Fort Monroe.
One of the lessons is that “technology works, particularly to attract the attention of a younger audience. . . .
“We’ll have technology on demand,” he said. “Contrast that with years ago when museums thought the best thing was a 20-minute film. People don’t have patience for it. They want a 2-minute film when they want it.”
To Charles Bryan, president of the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond’s historic riches may be a reason not to build another museum.
He’d rather see the city concentrate on creating easily seen directional signs for visitors, on having a more visible visitors center with easy parking and on having public transportation leading to clusters of attractions. A significant increase in dollars to market the city would help bring visitors in, too.
“Part of the problem, and it’s a good problem in a way, there are so many Civil War attractions in Virginia and in the South in general, to have yet another one is just diffusing the audience that much more.”
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