JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 — It began less than 10 years ago as the brainchild of historian Stephen Ambrose, who spent the last years of his life pushing for the creation of a museum devoted to the Normandy invasion and other amphibious landings of World War II. When the first visitors arrived at the New Orleans–based D-Day Museum, though, they demanded more. “People said ‘You’re not doing enough—what about the merchant marine, the Coast Guard, other airborne units?’” Alan Raphael, a spokesman for the museum, told World War II. “That’s when we started looking at next phases.”
Slowly, the museum’s founders began to expand its scope. With Congress’s blessing, the museum changed its name to the National World War II Museum in 2003. And this fall, after a major new wing opened in November—part of a $300 million expansion scheduled over the next five years—Ambrose’s museum is staking its claim as the preeminent site of all things World War II.
The Stage Door Canteen, Victory Theater, and a restaurant have joined the existing exhibitions. The theater is the home of a state-of-the-art multimedia film presentation produced and narrated by Tom Hanks, complete with seats that rumble when tanks cross the screen and snow that falls from above during winter combat scenes.
Over the next 18 months, construction is scheduled to begin on further expansions to what will become a six-acre campus that includes exhibits on every major war theater, and a building devoted to the history of the Holocaust. “We’re trying to live up to being the country’s official World War II museum,” says Raphael, who acknowledges that the down economy has slowed the museum’s fundraising efforts. “We’ve struggled just like everybody else, but we’re starting to hit our stride. We really want to get everything we can do done before all the veterans are gone. You talk about a deadline, that’s a deadline.”