Saturday, October 13, 2012

The National WWII Museum

Last weekend I took a much needed break from Grad School to visit New Orleans with Eric and the rest of the Russian House Exiles. One of trip's highlights was definitely our time spent at the National WWII Museum. As I understand it, this museum was originally founded as the National D-Day Museum, the brainchild of Stephen Ambrose and the History Channel, but was rebranded and expanded as the National WWII museum after Hurricane Katrina threatened to shut it down permanently. The museum's complex currently occupies two city blocks and is still growing. We had some trouble finding the actual museum entrance and had to ask for help in one of the three museum stores. We felt slightly better about this when we helped out several other visitors who had the same problem.

Once inside, is it sad that I was a little underwhelmed by their presentation of a C-47? Besides that, they had one Sherman tank and a Spitfire in the pavilion that holds the vehicle collection. That's a pretty sad assortment if you ask me. Even the Fort Bliss and Old Ironsides Museums has a T-34. Expansion suggestion #1: This place needs a tank park.
Admission to the museum was a little steep. Our group lucked out since most of us had student and/or military IDs, warranting a decent discount. We paid $12 to get into the museum rather than the steep $21 for adults. However, the museum does offer free admission for uniformed military personnel and WWII veterans. Tickets in hand, we skipped the introductory videos and marched straight up to the exhibit beginning. The first display set the tone for the rest of our visit, demonstrating an aspect of museum work that this place really excels at: the visual display of information. You turn the corner into the Home Front gallery, where the story begins, and BOOM you instantly see the disadvantage of American forces at the beginning of the war.
Lined up in front of the corresponding national flags, little army men represent the sizes of the various armies. Pretty neat stuff and very easy to grasp the meaning without reading every little piece of text.This first section of the museum depicts the mobilization of the home front to support the war effort, including the development of industry and enlargement of the US army. It was a little strange to encounter the home front before the war had even started exhibit-wise, but I guess it allowed the narrative to leave the United States behind to focus on the fighting.

From the Home Front, visitors walk upstairs to the European Theater. Since this was previously the D-Day Museum, anyone familiar with World War II will be surprised to find that the exhibits start late in the war with preparations for the invasion of Normandy. The museum's mission statement reads that "the National WWII Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world- why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today - so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn." Very clearly, the museum strives to tell the American story of World War II, therefore all that stuff that happened before the US entered the war isn't all that relevant. They do follow the European Theater through the end of the conflict and they've added a section on the Pacific Theater, but US operations in North Africa receive almost no mention. Naturally, the museum omits the Eastern Front and all that stuff that happened before the US got involved. However much I might want them to tell the whole story of WWII, not doing so is completely in keeping with their mission statement.

So...maybe they should revise their mission statement.

Regardless of huge gaps in the narrative, they really have done some fantastic museum work. Here are some of my favorite parts:
This recreation allowed Tim and Eric to reenact The Longest Day complete with sound effects. I really enjoy it when museums are able to create environments within their exhibits that really transport the visitor to a different time or place.
 This was probably one of the best displays in the entire museum. The lines on the map connect an individual soldier to his location during the invasion. The inclusion of his picture with his story helps the visitor connect with him as an individual, and then there's an artifact that connects to each soldier. This is just so good on so many levels. I might have squeed a bit.
 Eric and I agreed that someday we want to decorate a nursery like this. Do you remember what I said about the visual representation of information? Well, there's the force attacking at Normandy. The visitor doesn't need to read anything to see the size and variety of the force deployed against the Nazis.
 Once you've landed in Normandy, this environment sneaks up on you. The ancient hedgerows in this area of France allowed German forces to easily conceal shooters, which is exactly what the museum has done here. One of the guns is fairly obvious to alert you to their presence, but then it takes a few minutes to find all the barrels aimed at you.
 These booths are integrated throughout the museum. Each one offers four two-minute oral history clips that connect topically to the gallery around them. It's a great way to add a personal dimension to the narrative without trapping the visitor for 15+ minutes or obstructing traffic.
 During my visit, our group got split up as some of us moved faster through the galleries. As explanation, I present the following exchange:
Evin - How did you guys get so far ahead of us?

Tim - We didn't have to read anything, we had Eric.
My husband Eric, the walking encyclopedia of military history.

The museum also had a special exhibit on entitled "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," sponsored in part by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It's so nice to see the various private museums working together.

We had lunch after our visit at the museum's restaurant The American Sector, which had a very tasty menu offering a mix of local dishes and items reminiscent of wartime rationing. They also had a pretty nice drink list. For a snack or a quick meal, the museum also houses a Soda Shop. The Stage Door Canteen offers live entertainment at Brunch and Dinner shows. Seriously, this place offers the complete 1940s experience.

On Sunday, while part of the group went to mass, Eric and I came back to the museum to see Beyond All Boundaries, "the 4-D Experience Featuring Tom Hanks." Eric just can't say no to Tom Hanks and I was curious. It was awesome and honestly worth the extra admission cost. Eric described it as "World War II: The Ride." According to the museum's website, they're currently hiring theatre and A/V technicians. Very tempting. Our return trip also meant that we got to check out the third museum shop. The three shops overlap in their stock, but they all carry a good variety of books, DVDs, swag, toys, and clothes. It was pretty cool that they actually had dresses from Stop Staring! on sale. Even cooler? GREMLINS!!! How had nobody ever shown me Gremlins before?!?!?! To prevent you from a similar catastrophe, I offer the following: [EDIT: "Gremlins from the Kremlin" is no longer available, but here's another Bugs Bunny cartoon with a Gremlin.]

One thing that was also clear from the museum was that they have a very strong volunteer program. Members of the Youth Victory Corps (middle and high school students) were stationed throughout the galleries with artifacts that you could touch and play with. Also, the museum is taking advantage of one very important asset that won't be around forever: World War II veterans. 
Right near the front entrance, this set up enables veterans to come in and volunteer to share their experience of the war. We didn't get the chance to talk to any of the volunteers while we were there, but the program offers a great opportunity for both visitors and veterans.

Overall, this museum has some great things going for it that make it well worth the visit, even though the narrative skips over some important aspects of the war. Like Africa. Or the Eastern Front. If you don't have an Eric with you, allow 2-3 hours for the exhibit galleries. If you have time, definitely check out the movie and grab a bite to eat!

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