Rusty weapons. Frayed carpet dotted with greasy chewing-gum spots. Ceiling tiles yellowed by water stains. For years, the visitor center at Pennsylvania's Gettysburg National Military Park looked less like a grand tribute to the 165,000 soldiers who fought there in 1863 than a building that 165,000 sloppy tourists had just tromped through. It was the kind of place that would inspire a kid to give that time-honored summer-vacation question a new twist: "Can we go yet?"
But this past spring, the park, built on the site of the Civil War battle and Abraham Lincoln's landmark address, unveiled a $103 million museum and visitor center that's meant to get kids — and their families — to stay longer and spend more. It's part of a trend at major historical sites across America. With attendance stagnant and consumers accustomed to theme-park whizbang, recently battlefields, old homes, and museums have been reckoning with the fading cachet of plain old history. "Most people aren't visiting to learn," says Elliott Gruber, vice president of the nonprofit Gettysburg Foundation, which built and operates the new visitor center. "They want to have an experience, to be immersed in something." That "something" requires sleek new packaging, including multimedia exhibits, better shops and restaurants, and movie-inspired storytelling — what might be called the Disneyfication of U.S. history.
The major challenge for historic sites is that as consumer tastes change, their product remains basically immutable and, well, dated. While a movie studio can roll out Indiana Jones sequels, there will never be a Gettysburg 2: Robert E. Lee's Revenge. The best they can do is to modernize their presentations. So at Gettysburg, tired displays of facts and figures are out, while spirited montages, accompanied by 19th-century marching music and life-size mannequins in Union and Confederate uniforms, are in. Numerous cases of half-rotted artifacts have been replaced by a few curated, restored choices. "Each object has been selected to tell a story," Gruber says. "It's not a question of how many canteens are here, but what does this one canteen mean?" (The chosen canteen helps illustrate the load borne by soldiers in battle.) And star power doesn't hurt: The voice-overs in a new documentary, funded by the History Channel in exchange for airtime for its logo, come in the familiar baritone of Morgan Freeman and the fatherly timbre of Sam Waterston.
Of course, if you're going to stay for a couple of days, you have to eat and shop, and this is where Gettysburg plans to make money. The old visitor center, which resembled a dilapidated country school, had no food service. The new center — a modern building of gray stone, rough-hewn timbers, and corrugated steel — has the Refreshment Saloon, a cafeteria serving "cast-iron chicken pot pie" and "Grandma Sarah's corn bread." The bookshop rivals a
Such growth might seem ambitious, but other revamped historic sites have delivered impressive results. The $100 million — plus overhaul of George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, completed in 2006, boosted attendance in 2007 by a robust 14%. At Philadelphia's Independence National Historic Park, one of the first sites to go high tech, visitor numbers have risen more than 20% since the 2000 opening of its $185 million facility, which has a 350-seat theater with a wraparound screen and a 225-seat restaurant.
Gettysburg officials insist that the impetus for the new center isn't to increase traffic, although attendance has fallen by nearly 10% since 2002. "With very little marketing or advertising, you still get almost 2 million people here every year," says Gruber. Rather, according to Wilburn, "the big impact will be that people will stay at Gettysburg longer; they'll make it a two-day visit instead of one."
Skeptics ask whether longer stays and higher revenue will help the other bottom line: appreciation of history. "There's a fear that the glitzy stuff will overcome the artifacts, which is what museums are supposed to be about," says Kym Rice, an assistant professor of museum studies at George Washington University. At Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg, for instance, virtually the entire historic area has become a Ye Olde Shopping Mall, where every restored shop is a point of sale for souvenirs, and the "pubs" sell premade sandwiches and postcolonial sodas. At Mount Vernon, visitors can buy Pizza Hut breadsticks in the food court, and — we cannot tell a lie — the gift shop sells plastic axes filled with cherry candy.
Gettysburg hasn't gone for the full symphony of bells and whistles, in part because it serves as a memorial to fallen soldiers. Most items in the new bookshop are indeed books. Visitors aren't funneled from the museum into the gift shop — a luxury not offered at other historic sites. Museum consultant Janet Kamien, who worked on the National Constitution Center, believes tourists will punish any site that veers too far from its core product. "The public still cares about whether they're being told the truth," she says. "Are they getting the Universal Studios version of the truth, or just the technology without the veracity?"
History, you might say, will be the judge.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.