The National WWII Museum: How to Bring History into the Present

Emma Goodyear, 2018/19 Chuck Walker scholarship recipient 

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When I was travelling around the United States this summer, I saw so many museums and galleries in so many different cities that I think I could become an attractions review page. However, as the exhibits and portraits and artefacts of many of these locations blur into one in my mind, there is one museum that left a lasting impression. The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana struck a chord, not just for its standards as a clean, accessible and sufficiently time-consuming attraction, but for its ability to push boundaries in the way its visitors study and remember history.

The museum opened its doors in 2000 as a D-Day memorial museum and was designated by the U.S. Congress as the ‘official’ National WWII Museum in 2003. Situated in the Warehouse District, it’s a quick (albeit often crowded) streetcar ride from the French Quarter. At $28.50 per person ($24.50 seniors; $18 students/military) it isn’t the cheapest attraction, but then again you can easily lose a whole day here if you’re looking to do so, especially if you add on the bonus movie and submarine experience for $7 each [exhibits may be subject to change]. As an attraction, the National WWII Museum is very sleek and spacious. The campus is very new and has clearly been designed with a plan or storyline in mind – each of its exhibits seem to be self-contained within large rooms or entire storeys spread out across five buildings on the site (with further expansion planned for the next two years). This design makes learning and placing information easier, having already grouped it into organised subcategories. One thing the museum lacks that would be beneficial here is a comprehensive tour trail or direction. With some of its interactive tables spread out across the rooms labelled with numbers, it creates the impression that there is a set order in which to view the museum. However, the first table I approached ended up being a table number 2, making my party confused and causing us to backtrack to figure out where we were supposed to go, before concluding that it didn’t seem to matter too much, and powering ahead out of order. The museum was reasonably accessible: it is worth bearing in mind that it is a reasonable sized campus of buildings, and you have to walk between buildings to get to all the exhibitions. There are very large and clean lifts, and the interactive screens are low enough to be visible from a standard wheelchair, its videos subtitled and equipped with individual audio listening devices. There are benches to rest on outside of exhibition rooms, although once in the rooms, there seemed to be the typical fast-paced rigmarole you would expect in such an attraction.

In its physical design, the museum matches what you would expect of such a new and spacious facility, but it is in its handling of history that the National WWII Museum stands out. The museum leads not with displays of facts and timelines but with personal oral histories, jumping in on the rising trend of interactive displays and audio tours to help create a more immersive experience. Every guest begins their experience ushered -as the guide points out the soldiers would have been- into a train carriage, where they are given a dog tag that is digitally linked to the profile of a real WWII soldier. This tag allows you to ‘tap in’ at certain points of the museum, checking in on your person’s story as you progress (another reason that the museum would benefit from a specific tour line to ensure you don’t miss stages of your person’s life story as I did). The focus here on personal histories humanises those involved in the war, creating an emotional investment that forces the guest to empathise and visualise the conflict in a way that artefacts in a display case do not tend to do. This is an interactive idea I have seen at use in a select number of museums -the equally poignant Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles springs to mind- but what really set this feature apart here was the ability to save the story, along with many of the artefacts and articles you can find on interactive screens throughout the museum, to send to your email address or retrieve off the website with your dog tag number at a later date. Given the pressure when in a crowded museum to skim information and move on swiftly, the National WWII Museum deliberately ensures that its knowledge, which could otherwise be fast forgotten, is accessible long after the fact for you to take in and truly learn at your own speed. In this, the museum recognises the importance of leaving a lasting impact on its visitors, rather than just being a way to keep people busy for an afternoon to the song of twenty-something bucks each.

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While the top-notch facilities and the personal oral histories played a huge role in creating an enthralling and enjoyable experience, the museum really shone in its thoroughness and educational scope. With exhibitions spread across five different (and large) buildings on the site, the National WWII Museum has the space to create an in-depth study of the war, and it utilises it very well. It should be obvious that studying or travelling abroad opens your eyes to different perspectives, even on issues you thought you were educated and resolved on, but it was at the museum in New Orleans where I first came across a perspective in America that was less American-centric and more deliberately global. It is true that even though I had a solid schooling about the Second World War, British education (including educational media such as documentaries) tends to skew Euro-centric: the major (and in some instances sole) focus is on the conflict in Europe between the Nazis and the Allied forces, often ignoring conflict across North Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Meanwhile in classes and textbooks I encountered while studying in America, the increased focus on the conflict across the Pacific is offset by the insistence that the war may as well have started worldwide in 1942, as there is little attention paid to the conflict in Europe prior to American involvement. There are ample fantastic examples of museums and media where dedication has been shown to the in-depth retelling and preservation of either the European or the Pacific story of the war. The National WWII museum is especially powerful in that it dedicates a great deal of attention to showing the whole image, without having to compromise because of it. In having two equally large exhibits contained within its Campaigns of Courage building, one dedicated to the conflict in Europe and one to the conflict across Asia and the Pacific, the museum refuses to prioritise or taint the history of one element with the lens of the other. Each exhibit has its own distinct architectural and decorative style, with the European Theater dark, snowy and rubble-covered and the Pacific Theater designed like war ships and jungles. The oral histories and digital artefacts spanned both rooms, and both had similar introductory maps, displays and videos. The rooms avoid centering heavily around the expected talking points for each region -namely the Holocaust and the atomic bombing in Japan- in order to focus on stories frequently glossed over by other WWII media and facilities. Each theatre can function individually as an excellent standalone exhibition on its chosen region, but it is in the thoroughness of the story when piecing the two together that the museum shines in a way many more specialised or biased facilities fail to do, utilising its vast amount of space and facilities to ensure all major elements of the WWII story are represented in equal measure.

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This thoroughness carried over in the attention to detail shown in many of the exhibitions the museum had to offer. The oral histories and digitised biographies told the experiences not just of army soldiers but of nurses and medics, air force, marines and naval officers of many walks of life. In terms of artefacts, there was a display dedicated to weaponry and uniform of both the American and German fighters in the main Memorial Pavilion, and if jets or tanks are your thing, the Freedom Pavilion hosts a collection alongside its $7 submarine experience. The star of the show for me was the vast exhibit showcasing American life during the war. Whilst the exhibit was equipped with the obligatory quaint household set filled with examples of rationed food and old radio sets that you would expect to depict American life in the 40s, it also went much deeper into the intricacies and hypocrisies of the period. The museum addressed racial inequality more than I had expected of it with segments on racially segregated corps and a corner dedicated to experiences of Japanese internment. Ideally, I would have loved this part to be larger and more in-depth, but that’s from to personal interest in the subject; the content that was available was a sufficient basic overview. There were still a couple of times that bias or lack of willingness to take culpability was revealed, often in relation to America’s relationship with Japan: while anti-Japanese propaganda during the period and afterwards was particularly virulent from posters to Bugs Bunny cartoons, the museum makes reference to such propaganda only once in a tiny plaque in the Pacific exhibition, when it would have helped create a cultural backdrop to the Japanese internment section in the lifestyle exhibition. Similarly, the room at the very end of the Pacific exhibition on the dropping of the atomic bombs was particularly bare in comparison, perhaps in a way that was meant to seem respectful but in reality seemed under-informed: with no real reference to Japanese civilians or its impact on Japan but instead with recollection to the wind conditions faced by the pilots, the room felt like it missed the mark, especially when the rest of the museum was so thoroughly organised. In this aspect, the rest of the museum sets such a high bar for itself that it is perhaps more noticeable when some small areas miss the mark.

            Overall, the National WWII Museum took the crown of the best museum I visited on my travels, mostly due to a prevailing feeling that those behind it cared about more than just creating a profitable and mildly entertaining attraction. While the museum is a success in those elements, it truly shines in its dedication to ensuring that a vast range of war stories are not forgotten, creating a platform for individual voices through its interactive oral histories that better equip its visitors to empathise and understand the war behind the facts and figures. And in ensuring with its digital dog tag experience that guests can take the stories home with them, the National WWII Museum cares about preserving the history it showcases within its walls, long after you have stepped out of the door.

Article first posted on https://www.agoodyearinthelife.com

 

https://www.nationalww2museum.org/

Open daily, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Closed Mardi Gras Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.

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Farewell 2AD, An American Scholar Departs

As my tenure as UEA American Scholar draws to a close I have been reflecting on my time with the Memorial Library. It has been a wonderful experience with many opportunities to learn, explore, and grow as a person while giving back to my adoptive city and region. But I wasn’t always aware of what a truly grand opportunity working here could be.

Before starting my tenure at the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library (2AD) I honestly wasn’t quite sure what it was. It had always been that little space in the corner of the library that I never quite made it into. However, nearly a year working with the collection and the individuals who come to visit I have come to realize what an important resource it is and how well the idea of a living memorial is truly doing.

Shortly after beginning with the 2AD I had the great privilege to attend a memorial service in St. Paul’s honouring the US airmen who gave their lives flying from bases across the UK. If the enormity of that service hadn’t already driven home how important the work at our little memorial was the conversations I had with veterans, their families, and politicians over the previous and subsequent days served to further highlight why we need such a place.

This event is far from the only time I’ve had the opportunity to speak to veterans or their families. It seems to be a pilgrimage of sort for fathers to bring their children to see the region that so shaped their lives, and they invariably come to us to view our collection and share some of their stories. It is even more common to have the families of veterans come in with the story, “He never spoke about it.” These groups are, to me, among the best to assist because it helps put together a picture of their father’s and grandfather’s life they otherwise wouldn’t have. Opportunities like this are what make working at the 2AD such a spectacular opportunity.

There is another group of visitors who are just as fascinating to visit with as the actual veterans, the locals. I have gotten to sit and listen to innumerable older visitors talk about their memories of being young children surrounded by a sudden new world of different accents, customs, and looks. One gentleman told me how he and his friends would follow servicemen around begging for gum, a common enough snack now but an incredible treat back then. Another said his route to school would take him right past an airfield in the mornings when the planes would be taking off, and how his walk home would usually coincide with the planes returning, a great many fewer than he saw in the morning. This impact the war and the American involvement had in the lives of the young has echoed down to today in a million small ways and hearing how it began is one of the greatest treats I have experienced here.

All of this comes down to a single point, while I was unfamiliar with the 2AD before I began, I now recognize it as the indispensable resource it is. An enduring link between the past and the present, America and the UK, and for generations to understand each other in ways not normally possible. My time he has taught me just how important a living memorial is, not only for remembrance but for carrying on the legacy of those who strove to make such a place possible.

I will dearly remember my time here for these reasons, among many others, and hope to remain in the sphere of the 2AD for years to come. Thank you all for your part in making this opportunity so wonderful with your involvement and discussion over the year and I hope I have done my part in ensuring the legacy of those before me is carried on.

So, for one final time, thank you for reading and remembering with me.

 

All the best,

Mike

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This Week in History

Often times, being surrounded by memorabilia from WW2 and having the most personal connections with individuals who served during the same it is easy to let it overshadow other conflicts throughout history. However, today is not a day where this will happen, for this week marks the 105th Anniversary of the declaration of war which became World War 1.

105 years ago, following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. This would ignite a string of alliances and counter-alliances which would result in combatants which seemingly spanned the entire known world. While this is largely an Eurocentric viewpoint it is still true that to that point a conflict of such magnitude was nearly inconceivable.

This ‘Great War’ as it was known at the time was expected to mark either the destruction of humanity or an end to all future wars depending on who was asked. With a death toll estimated around 17 million, with some estimates as high as 37 million, and civilian deaths in excess of 7 million individuals, it is easy to see where these viewpoints came from. However, as we now know the world did not end and instead of ending war it simply set the stage for larger conflicts in the future.

But it is important to remember how and when it all started, with one declaration of war, and the faction based system of politics at the time, which is becoming increasingly common again, the world was plunged into a conflict from which it is still recovering today.

While this small post can never hope to do justice to the enormity of the conflict and the honor and loss of both sides I hope it helps to spark some thought and remembrance throughout this week.

 

Thank you for reading and remembering with me,

Mike

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FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: Captain Newman, M.D. (1963)

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For my final entry in the Forgotten Hollywood series, I would like to draw attention to a film that is similarly about transitions. Based loosely on a true story, Captain Newman, M.D. (1963) is about Capt. Josiah Newman (Gregory Peck), the head of the neuro-psychiatric ward at a military hospital during WWII. Throughout the film, he and his staff treat a range of patients dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder and other mental ailments. It’s an episodic structure, one that would have lent itself well to a proposed television adaptation.

This setting allows for the supporting actors to indulge to the expected histrionics, chewing the scenery in their respective scenes while Peck falls back on his reliable movie star charisma. These are the performances that garnered critical attention and an Oscar nomination of Bobby Darin as Cpl. Jim Tomkins. However, there is an exception. A relative newcomer at the time, Robert Duvall plays Capt. Paul Winston, who spends much of the film in a catatonic state until one of the final scenes.

I will not spoil the specifics of this moment, but it becomes clear that we are witnessing the birth of a new generation of actor, the type who would dominate the next decade of Hollywood. He goes small rather than big. He whispers were others had projected. His pain and shame are internalised rather than put on display. Instead of a brightly lit room surrounded by an audience of orderlies and nurses, this scene takes place in the shadows and in close-ups, with only him and Peck. Especially when compared to his co-stars, Duvall’s performance reveals a transition not only in dominant acting styles but also in how we remember WWII.

WWII is fading from living memory. Soon, we will be left with nothing but shadows and flickering lights in the likeness of the dead. The heartbreak of I’ll Be Seeing You and the cautionary tale of None Shall Escape are losing their immediacy. The names of Sessue Hayakawa, Preston Sturges, and Anna May Wong are being forgotten. The treatment of Japanese Americans at home and abroad is being elided from our shared memory. With this series, I had hoped to help revitalise interest in these stories and storytellers, a Sisyphean task. They too are fading.

Beyond cinema, I reflect on my time here at the 2AD Memorial Library, on how we memorlise WWII. Scrawled notes on scraps of paper. Faded photographs. Names in a roll of honour. If we do not preserve these stories, they will be lost. How will we remember this time in history? How will we share these stories with others? For this, I am grateful for institutions like the 2AD Memorial Trust. We have a responsibility to keep these stories alive, even as the style of their telling changes over time.

If you want to learn more about the story of Captain Newman, you can reserve a copy of Leo Rosten’s Captain Newman, M.D. (1961). The film adaptation is available on DVD at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library.

Thank you.

-Francis

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