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

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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Interactive screen in the Campaigns of Courage building, displaying oral histories.

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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War posters on display in the Memorial Pavilion

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.

 

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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Email – emmagoodyear@agoodyearinthelife.com

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