National World War II Museum

No surprises here – the National World War II Museum covers American soldiers and the American homefront during World War II. The Museum is so large it is called a Museum Campus with 6 separate buildings addressing themes such as the the European and Pacific theatres of War and the homefront. There is literally so much to see and so many thematic panels I think it would be impossible to soak it all in during just one visit. We didn’t want to delve too deep into the content so focused more on the different exhibition layouts, i.e. how the information was presented.

We started our visit with the 4D film experience ‘Beyond All Boundaries’ narrated by Tom Hanks. This was followed by a walk through the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center and Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters. In total, we only spent about 2 hours in the Museum before deciding that was our limit. This post will provide a brief summary of the three experiences/exhibitions listed above.

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Beyond All Boundaries

This 4D film experience engages almost all the senses. It tells the story of America’s involvement in World War II including the major battles fought and how the War changed the fabric of American culture/society. Along with archival photographs and video, there are readings of firsthand accounts. Events such as D-Day, the defense of Rome and the dropping of the atomic bomb are all covered in order to piece together a bigger picture of the War. The experience lasts 45 minutes which verges on a little too long.

I am so glad there are some warnings before entering the theatre. These basically inform visitors about the use of smoke machines and loud noises (including gun fire). I can imagine that this kind of sensory experience might be uncomfortable for a lot of people and I have to admit we did consider leaving half way through. I would recommend adding this experience to your ticket only if you are wanting an overview of the American World War II experience.

US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center

The last building, The Boeing Center, contains all the large World War II aircraft. As you can see in the photographs below, there are ramps going all over the place allowing visitors to get up close to the planes and see all the details. We just stayed on the ground level and admired the planes from below. This is one of the most impressive buildings in the Campus and worth exploring.

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Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters

These two exhibitions are what I am wanting to focus on from an exhibition design perspective. Also, I will include a quick mention of some highlight objects. We moved through these exhibitions quite quickly as they were very crowded and it was near impossible to read the text. Instead, we observed how the material was being displayed.

As you can see from the photographs below, each space in this exhibition has been designed to visually suit the different battles and themes. For example, the Guadalcanal section was filled with (fake) tropical trees to give the illusion you were walking into the jungle. When addressing the Battle of the Bulge, the exhibition space is filled with snow covered trees with digital snowflakes falling on the walls. Nestled amongst these props are the display cases, so beautifully and smoothly integrated. The major design elements contextualised the objects and information on display in a visually appealing way. This is particularly impressive as there was always going to be a risk that these kind of props wouldn’t suit the content and be too much of a gimmick in the space.

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Guadalcanal Section
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Battle of the Bulge

When we did have the opportunity to see some of the objects, what stood out to me was how many letters to loved ones are on display. As I mentioned in the blog post yesterday, providing this human element through personal stories or firsthand accounts is so important when displaying trauma or a disaster. The most harrowing of these paper archives are the numerous Western Union notices sent home to families to inform them of any family member deaths. I found that the letters written home by soldiers are the most insightful objects on display. Mainly because despite all the horror and trauma, you can see their desire to connect with those back home and reassure everyone.

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Another highlight object is this cloth bag (photographed below) containing medical implements. These belonged to a newly graduated high school student, Raymond Areaux, who was drafted into the Army in May 1942. As one of his past jobs involved working in a pharmacy, he joined the Army Medical Corps. During the day, members of the Medical Corps were taught how to treat those injured on the front line. This included how to immobilise and set broken bones and how to treat bullet wounds. It is clear that the tools on display have been used.

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Other

Before leaving the Campus, we visited The Higgins Hotel & Conference Center. This art-deco inspired hotel is the first in America to be curated by museum professionals and attached to a museum. The hotel lobby contains artifacts, artworks, photography and personal story plaques. We went into the bar area where the chairs are designed to look like parts of ships and the high tables like parts of a production line. I can’t comment on the rooms, but it would be very interesting to see if this strong theme continues through every room or is just isolated to the lobby.

Practical Information

The National World War II Museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm except for Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The 4D experience runs from 10am to 4pm with each film starting on the hour. We did not include the USS Tang Submarine Experience, but it runs every 15, 35 and 55 minutes after the hour between 9.35am and 4.35pm. There is great accessibility with a whole section of the website dedicated to the various services available. You can read that by clicking here. There is an entry fee which you can find by clicking here.

Author: Rebecca Lush

Curator, Integrated Pathology Learning Centre.

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