Battlefield Visitor Center revamps exhibits
A small, paper sign on the front door of the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center declares “OPEN: Come On In!”
Small wonder that it’s there, given all the National Park Service maintenance vehicles parked out front and the unusual activities taking place indoors, including installation of a new boiler.
On Monday, a months-long effort began to revamp the public parts of the Lafayette Boulevard building, which opened in 1936 when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.
More than a dozen people—maintenance workers, curators, historians and exhibit specialists—are toiling to remove exhibits installed at the dawn of the Space Age and prepare four rooms on two floors for new ones.
“The 1962 exhibits were useful and powerful in their own time. … But we’ve learned more,” said National Park Service historian Frank A. O’Reilly, author of “The Fredericksburg Campaign,” the authoritative book on the battle fought here in 1862.
“We not only have more of a story to tell, but we have more ways to tell the story … I think that we’ll make the story far more accessible this way.”
The new exhibits will examine Fredericksburg’s role in the Civil War through many different lenses, O’Reilly said.
Those lenses will include soldiers North and South, residents of the town both black and white, and families back home far away, said historian Beth Parnicza, who is leading the team for the exhibit “takedown” at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park’s longest-used visitor facility.
The transformation began with removal of an exhibit on art that soldiers created here during the war and afterward. Next came the careful move into storage of artifacts in main-level cases that people have been eyeing since John F. Kennedy occupied the White House.
Those exhibits have been part of the park, at its most-visited spot, for three generations—as were most of the exhibits at the park’s Chancellorsville Visitor Center, which is closed for its overhaul.
The Fredericksburg displays were a legacy of “Mission 66”—the Park Service’s furious campaign to accommodate vacation-happy Americans after World War II. Those exhibits made up for many years of neglect and lean budgets.
“As soon as World War II was over, people were traveling again, everyone was going to the national parks, and they were getting overrun,” Parnicza said. “Their Civilian Conservation Corps infrastructure was no longer adequate to support the visitation they were getting.”
But in keeping with their times—colored by the divisive civil rights movement and Cold War fear and nationalism—the exhibits kept clear of controversy, focusing on stories that weren’t divisive, she said. They welcomed visitors in a gentle way, giving them a generalized view of the war’s arrival on Fredericksburg’s doorstep.
“You’ll notice the word ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ are not in any of these exhibits. But what caused the Civil War?” Parnicza said. “And think about the battle; it’s sandwiched in between the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the actual proclamation being signed, yet that’s not mentioned anywhere in these exhibits. To our eyes today, that’s a glaring omission.”
The new exhibits will remedy that by including more points of view, examining what happened here from both local and national perspectives, and describing how the Battle of Fredericksburg reverberated far and wide.
“Every death on this battlefield affects at least five people back home, whether that’s Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Vermont, wherever,” Parnicza said. “The immense loss of life tested the Union’s will to fight, bolstered Confederate hopes and left a town desolated.”
On Tuesday, Parnicza and colleagues gently took an icon of the battle—a drum of the Irish Brigade’s 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment—out of its Plexiglas case near the center’s front desk and folded inside blankets for temporary storage.
The drum and another second-floor centerpiece—
a diorama showing Fredericksburg houses wrecked by Confederate artillery shelling from Marye’s Heights—will return to public view in June after the old cases are demolished, the rooms are repainted and remodeled, and a contractor installs new cases, lighting and exhibits.
“We’re going to do it room by room, so we can keep the building open and still accommodate visitors as best we can, while making progress,” Parnicza said.
Ground-floor exhibits will remain on view until the second full week of February. As new exhibits are installed, the center’s visitor-services desk and bathrooms will stay open.
Only toward the project’s end, when carpet is installed, will the center close for a brief while, Parnicza said. The park will announce that closure and major changes to exhibits via the news media and Facebook.
The adjacent park bookstore will stay open, as will Sunken Road, the Kirkland Monument and Fredericksburg National Cemetery. All of the Visitor Center’s new exhibits will be in place by early summer, Parnicza said.
Similar work is ongoing at the park’s Chancellorsville Visitor Center, which should have its grand reopening in late April—in time for the 150th anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, she said.
O’Reilly, one of the park’s senior staff members, says the final result in Fredericksburg will wow visitors.
“I think it’s going to be powerful. It’s going to be in their face,” he said, speaking of the new exhibits on the battle and its aftermath. “I think people are going to walk around, saying ‘This is an amazing thing that has transitioned here.’”
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Clint Schemmer: 540/374-5424