SHARPSBURG — Renovations to the Antietam National Battlefield Visitor Center are “approximately 75% complete” and expected to reopen in the fall, according to Park Ranger Keith Snyder, head of resource education and services visitors to the battlefield.
“But there are supply issues that we need to address,” he said. “There’s a lot of great work going on, as you can see, but nothing is given these days on the supply side, in particular. But they’re making great strides.”
In the meantime, visitors can still view the Civil War battlefield film, purchase books, and get information at a temporary visitor center across the parking lot.
And visitors still arrive, unfazed by the ongoing construction.
“People haven’t stopped coming in the middle of this process,” Snyder said, and the temporary center “is actually a lot nicer than we thought it was going to be.”
The temporary building is spacious and allowed battlefield personnel to reuse many of the exhibit panels that were in the visitor center before it closed for renovations. They also moved the information office and bookstore to the temporary excavations.
“When we first moved in, we were still at the highest COVID transmission levels,” Snyder said. “But when it calmed down a bit, we actually opened a temporary cinema. It’s a big screen TV, but at least we can show the film.
“It made a lot of people happier, because a lot of people want to see the movie.”
But the main attraction is the battlefield itself, which is completely open. This includes roads and trails. And ranger talks are held daily, and weekend tours and monthly living history programs are ongoing.
What will some of Antietam’s new exhibits look like?
When the new center opens, it will include “entirely new exhibits,” Snyder said, starting almost from the moment visitors get out of their cars.
“This exhibition experience actually starts from the parking lot all the way inside and through the building,” he said. “That was one of our goals, it was to create both an outdoor and an indoor experience.”
What will it look like?
More roadside information boards. A sculpture on the lawn symbolizing the battle. A place of interpretation with benches and other roadsides.
And visitors can follow a timeline of the war before they even reach inside the visitor center – it will be embedded in the sidewalk.
“Almost all of the visitors who come here, I would say 80%, come or go to Gettysburg or Harpers Ferry,” Snyder said. “So people are doing the circuit; they’re trying to get it in their head… they’re trying to get the sequence.
“One way we thought we could creatively solve this problem is a sidewalk timeline.”
Along with new exhibits, the center will be much more accessible to visitors with disabilities. Improvements include an elevator, new restrooms and less steep sidewalks.
“The new sidewalk is one of the reasons we created this interpretive plaza, because it’s going to be kind of an ‘S-curve,'” Snyder said, because the sidewalk was too steep.
The exhibition space will also have 12 interactive elements, he said, including a listening station.
“It was an opportunity for us to rethink our history…especially based on the most recent stock market,” he said. “Every generation has new information, and so do we. This is the most appropriate place to try to tell some of the most important story…for example, the cause of the war, the experience of ‘post-battle.’
Snyder said park management decided early on to use the renovated visitor center to tell those bigger stories.
“We mostly tell the story of the battle when you’re in the field,” he said. But beyond these “tactical stories,” visitors to the new center will learn about the families who lived in Sharpsburg at the time of the battle and the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln in the aftermath of the battle. .
How were the exhibits for the new Antietam visitor center chosen?
In deciding how to tell these stories in the renovated center, battlefield staff created an advisory team that included historians and rangers from other Civil War battlefields.
“We locked ourselves in a room to develop our themes and our goals,” he said, “and the big epiphany was, how do we organize it? There are a lot of ways to do it, and we were starting with a blank slate; here is our opportunity.”
They agreed on five “universal concepts” around which to tell the story of the battle: conflict, terror, survival, freedom and memory.
“Everyone has some sort of experience with these five universal concepts,” Snyder said. “Maybe not at the level of a Civil War soldier, but everyone has had fear in their life, everyone has conflict in their life. Everyone hopefully has some kind of thought about what freedom is. And memory is what history is.”
The purpose of the building, he said, is to be a stepping stone to the battlefield itself.
The visitor center was built in 1962, at the time of the centenary of the battle. This year marks the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, which took place on September 17, 1862.
The building has had plenty of problems, Snyder said, but the upgrades will “bring it into the 21st century.”
For now, the temporary center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The courts are open during the day.
For more information, virtual tours and a calendar of upcoming events, visit the website at www.nps.gov/anti/index.htm.