The Children of Gettysburg 1863: a sneak peek at a new museum

Digital Originals

GETTYSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The Gettysburg Foundation’s Rupp House History Center has always concentrated on the lives of civilians before, during and after the battle. After almost two decades of interactive, hands-on experience, the displays needed to be updated. At the same time, they realized they were underserving an important demographic.

“There isn’t a lot for kids to do here,” Bethany Yingling of the Gettysburg Foundation said. “Sometimes when we get phone calls, they say ‘I’m bringing my grandkids, what is there to do for kids?’ And our answer usually was ‘Well, there’re some museums, and some of them have a couple displays for kids, or the kids love going out on Devil’s Den and playing on the rocks.’ So we decided, let’s make a museum about kids for kids.”

The renovations are almost complete, and Bethany is the manager of the new museum.

“The Children of Gettysburg 1863 Museum is an interactive experience for kids, where they get to learn the stories of six kids who actually lived here during the battle,” she says. “It’s all hands-on, they can touch everything, play with everything, but learn what it was like to be a kid, from the experience of a kid.”

“All wrote about their experiences, most of them a little bit later in life, but they all told stories about their experience. So we have first-hand accounts, which was really important to us. Because we didn’t want to do interpretive history. We wanted to do factual history, so kids could come in here and know they were getting exactly what happened.”

It’s still a work in progress, and won’t open until September. But, it’s finished enough for Yingling to show us around. As you step through the front door, you see portraits of the six children (three male, three female), with their names, ages and where they lived.

There’s a problem here, which Yingling herself is quick to point out.

“All of them are white children. You will see the experiences of black people that lived here in Gettysburg, citizens of the town, throughout the museum. Most of them are adults, though, because the kids didn’t really write anything. In fact in most of the cases here in town, a lot of them we don’t even know what their names were. We just know certain families had five kids, or certain families had two boys and a girl. But we don’t know what their names were. And so we don’t have their first-person accounts” Yingling said.

Bethany hopes new scholarships will allow them to add new faces in the future. The foundation is confronting the issue of slavery head-on; one wall of the museum tries to explain the subject, in a language children will understand.

“This particular section on slavery before the Civil War was very daunting because it is going to be in some cases the first time a child hears about such concepts,” Yingling said.

Adapting to covid was an extra challenge. The Foundation had to come up with new ways to do some of the interactive activities. “Originally we were thinking of doing a dress up, where they could actually dress in the clothes,” Yingling said. “But covid kind of put the kibosh to that. So then we thought we’d do the cardboard cutout, where they stick their face in and get pictures as that character. Again covid. So we went with this option which I personally kind of like.”

The option-cutouts with mirrors where the faces would be.

“The kid can stand there, see themselves as the character, and the parent can still get their picture. So it kind of makes the experience more personalized for the child, because in the cardboard cutout, they’re just seeing the cutout and the parent taking the picture, whereas here they’re seeing themselves in that character’s body.”

The exhibit has four main parts. Room one introduces kids to home life in the 1860s. (They tend to be fascinated by clothing irons without plugs.) It also has a special map of the town.

“Rupp house is here, more like it appears today than it did in 1963,” Yingling said. “And we have our six characters, each one is a puzzle piece. And each one at the bottom has a unique symbol, so they can find the symbol on the map here, and place it where it goes. That way they can get a kind of visual representation of where they live in relation to where they are right now.”

The second room centers on the coming of the war. It contains what may be the most popular display in the museum-a pole with a Civil War musket and knapsack carefully attached. The challenge for kids-try to raise it. This display was so popular in the old exhibit, it’s still here.

“The best part about this exhibit,” Yingling said. “Is that if a kid goes missing in the museum, in another room, and their parents are like ‘where’d they go?’ they’re usually over here trying to lift this again, because they’re determined to not leave here without lifting it at least once.”

Room three is a look at what you had to do if you stayed, instead of fleeing the area. In a word: hide. The room recreates the basement of the Rupp House, where many civilians, and soldiers, hid. (During the battle, the Rupps had Union soldiers at the front door, and Confederates at the rear.)

The final room is about the aftermath of battle, and what children experienced. “In many cases, that was taking care of the wounded,” Yingling said.

The room contains a mannequin on a stretcher.

“They can dress the wound of the mannequin, which they love doing, and they can also write letters to the soldiers’ family back home.”

The Children of Gettysburg 1863 Museum will open to the public on September 4, during the Labor Day weekend.

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