BRC set to bring Civil War to life at Virginia's historical Pamplin Park

(By James Zoltak. From Amusement Business, 4/20/98)

A new multi-million dollar Civil War museum at the Pamplin Park Civil War Site in Petersburg, Va., will be anchored by an immersive attraction called "Trial By Fire" that is being designed and produced by Burbank, Calif.-based BRC Imagination Arts.

"The building is called the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier and it is the keystone of the expansion of our current facility into what will be known as Pamplin Historical Park," explained A. Wilson Greene, executive director of Pamplin Historical Park.

Greene said the $10 million expansion is due to open Memorial Day weekend in 1999. Ground was broken on the project in November.

"It will be the centerpiece of our new museum," said Greene. "This will be an immersive exhibit in which visitors are introduced to the experience of combat for common soldiers during the Civil War. We want to suggest to people of the 21st century what it was like to be in battle during the 19th century."

BRC Vice President Jim Warren said he was not at liberty to disclose just how Trial By Fire will capture the Civil War battle experience.

"In general terms, we are going to use a lot of the technical special effects used in interactive theaters," he said. "We are kind of stretching [the museum market] envelope a little bit. It will be a high-grade [walk-through] museum experience and yet dignified."

BRC's Tisa Poe will produce the attraction, which will last two to three minutes and have a capacity of 500-600 per hour.

Chuck Roberts is handling theater design.

Greene said BRC was one of several firms Pamplin Park officials knew could handle the exhibits like the one they had in mind.

"We visited several of the exhibits they had already done, including [NASA's] Saturn V Center in Florida," he said. "We met with [BRC Founder and Chairman] Bob Rogers and his team in Burbank. We heard all the right things about historical accuracy and understanding the difference between a completely theme-park-type attraction and an exhibit in a serious history museum, and we felt they offered the right combination of skills and experience." [I'm from Burbank, and I'm here to tell you nobody in Burbank knows the slightest thing about historical authenticity. - Jonah]

Green wouldn't release the park's annual visitation or how many more visitors Trial By Fire is expected to draw each year, but he did say he expects a substantial increase.

"We have hopes it will lead to making Pamplin Historical Park one of the leading historical attractions in the country," he said.

The park is administered by the entirely private Pamplin Foundation of Portland, Ore.

The foundation is the philanthropic arm of the R.B Pamplin Corp., which is run by Robert B. Pamplin and his son, Robert B. Pamplin Jr. The elder Pamplin is the former chief executive officer of the Georgia Pacific Corp. and now runs, with his son, the R.B. Pamplin Corp., the largest privately held company in Oregon whose largest subsidiary is the Mt. Vernon Mills textile firm.

Pamplin Park is a preserved 201-acre site where one of the last major battles of the Civil War was fought. It was there the Union Army under Ulysses S. Grant broke through the defenses of Gen. Robert F. Lee, leading to the evacuations of Petersburg and Richmond.

Today, the park includes a modern interpretive center with museum exhibits, fiber-optic, interactive computers and access to the battle fields and fortifications via more than a mile of walking trails. There is also the 180-year-old Tudor Hall plantation house, which was owned by the Pamplin's ancestors.

The Pamplin Park exhibit is in line with BRC's concept of "Intelligent Fun," the blending of show biz magic and theatrical techniques with more institutional educational kinds of messages.

"That has been kind of a specialty of BRC all along," Warren said. "It's a natural offshoot of our expo roots, where you have serious subjects or information to communicate. The institutional market is beginning to pay attention to the guest experience to make it far more energetic and enjoyable."