Bob is the most popular guy at Gettysburg’s newest museum.
He’s actually a dummy—dressed in Civil War clothing, lying on a cot—whose battle wounds get bandaged by kids nearly all day, every day. He’s just one of many interactive activities that make history hands-on for Gettysburg’s youngest visitors at a new museum called Children of Gettysburg 1863.
Children and families choose one of six “characters”—real Gettysburg children who lived through the Civil War—and follow their personal stories through colorful, oversized storybooks and related hands-on activities like the bandaging of Bob. Everything is conceived and operated by the Gettysburg Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the National Park Service’s Gettysburg National Military Park.
“We’re changing the concept of what a museum is, because it’s entirely hands-on,” said Bethany Yingling, museum manager. “And there’s nothing better than watching parents and kids interact, learning together.”
Eyes of a Child
Yingling is often the one who greets families at the entrance and shadows them through the museum’s five rooms, each presenting specific Civil War topics leading up to, through and following the pivotal Civil War battle. The target age range is kindergarten through fifth grade, yet Yingling said that many adults are surprised by how much they learn—through the eyes of their children—as well as the eyes of Gettysburg’s children of 1863.
In addition to each room’s central, oversized storybooks—based on historically accurate, first-person accounts—there are scavenger hunt cards for kids to emboss along the way, the chance to be a drummer boy in the Civil War (don’t worry, mamas—the drumbeats are muted), lifting a heavy bucket full of bullet shells (a common post-battle activity for Gettysburg’s children), puzzles and more.
“I look at this as an opportunity, as a history nerd, to do all the things that I wish I’d had the opportunity to do as a little kid,” said Yingling, who earned a degree in secondary education social studies and history and previously worked as a teacher. “This is my way to give back to all the little nerds up-and-coming, and I say that word ‘nerd’ with love.”
All that hands-on learning helps kids process what the pivotal Civil War battle was all about. Because, otherwise, how do you explain big concepts like the Civil War and slavery?
“It’s our obligation, our role, to inspire these kids in a way that makes sense to them, because war is scary and slavery is complex,” said Elle Lamboy, Gettysburg Foundation’s vice president of philanthropy. “So, we tried to break it down, working with educators, in ways that kids can begin to understand that they’re in a special place.”
Nurturing the next generation of history lovers by “igniting that spark of curiosity that will keep burning for a lifetime” is the museum’s primary goal, said Lamboy.
Converting the foundation-owned house into a children’s museum “was kind of a crazy idea but we felt like there was a real market advantage because there was nothing for this demographic, and as a nonprofit educational organization, we were meeting our mission—and then it was just so rewarding to bring these stories of these kiddos to life,” Lamboy said.
The beginning of the pandemic synched with—and shaped—the exhibits’ creative direction.
“That was the other wild part—the technology factor,” said Lamboy. “Everyone’s gut reaction was that the museum had to be high-tech. But as we were planning the gallery space, we were all on Zoom, kids were on Zoom, we were all on screen overload. And we were like, ‘Let’s just go back to a simpler time so kids really get a feel for what it was like in 1863.’”
Looking at today’s pandemic events through the lens of history often reveals new lessons. For example, did you know, Gettysburg residents wore masks following the battle to protect themselves from post-battle stench and disease?
“Kids have those a-ha moments when they realize they’re living through crazy things too—like COVID,” Yingling said. “They say, ‘They had to wear masks too?’ That connection—seeing that this isn’t the first time something horrible happened that required people to wear masks—and you can get past horrible things that happen in life.”
So far, attendance is shattering all projections. Affordability and accessibility is a priority. Admission is free for each child, age 12 and younger, with a paying adult ($7.50). The museum is already a popular destination for scouts, school and homeschool groups.
“What makes the museum so special is that everything is touchable and interactive,” said Anna Domzalski of Gettysburg, who organizes monthly field trips for a homeschool co-op involving 10 families and about 30 children.
With kids ranging from babies to fourth graders, most outings are especially meaningful for one specific age group, but their visit to Children of Gettysburg 1863 “was great for everyone,” said Domzalski.
“They did a great job with everything—the foundation made great choices,” Domzalski said. “But even more so, they picked the right people to run it. They’re phenomenal.”
Gettysburg’s history lessons are not only important to visitors, but for those who live nearby.
“We drive through the Gettysburg battlefield every day,” said Domzalski. “And your kids naturally ask questions. So, the museum is the perfect starting place to answer those questions.”
While Children of Gettysburg 1863 is located in town, the foundation also operates the popular NPS battlefield visitor center.
“Having the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center is huge, but we want you to grow with us your entire life,” said Lamboy. “What is the legacy of Gettysburg, if we don’t appeal to incoming generations? It could be lost. Our kids are going to be the ones to change this world. So, if we can have even one tiny part in that, it’s very rewarding.”
Children of Gettysburg 1863 is located at 451 Baltimore St., Gettysburg, and online at gettysburgfoundation.org/children-of-gettysburg-1863. Tune into TheBurg Podcast’s July episode to hear more from Elle Lamboy about the individual Children of Gettysburg 1863 stories, plus the museum’s special events.
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