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National Museum of the Marine Corps Director Lin Ezell. (Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps)Since opening in November 2006, the National Museum of the Marine Corps has won acclaim for its novel design and innovative approach to exhibiting the service’s art and artifacts. Centered on a 135-acre campus 36 miles south of Washington, D.C., the NMMC hosts a half-million visitors a year and is among the most popular attractions in the national capital region.

Managing the museum’s day-to-day operations is Director Lin Ezell, who assumed her post in July 2005 after 21 years at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. There her assignments included overseeing the planning, design, construction and opening of the NASM’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport, an experience she says prepared her well for the many and varied challenges of opening and running what is arguably the nation’s premier military history museum.

‘This is an attractive place, and people feel good while they’re here. Most people tell us they leave here feeling proud’

Do you see similarities between the Udvar-Hazy Center and the NMMC?
Both are large in size and monumental in architecture, and in each case the stakeholders are very passionate about the topics each museum deals with.

How did the NMMC come about?
It originated when the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation—largely led by retired Marine officers who care passionately about the service’s history—wanted to see a significantly better facility for showcasing that history than was available in the old, inaccessible, cramped and underfunded museum complex at the Washington Navy Yard. They had a dream for something on a much grander scale and took that dream to the Marine Corps. A formal agreement ultimately allowed the foundation to raise $60 million and oversee the NMMC’s construction, and the Marine Corps invested $30 million of appropriated federal funds. Combining private and public funds allows us to do a wider range of things in a more timely fashion than would be possible if we had to rely solely on one or the other.

The foundation handles all revenue-generating activities—food service, the museum store—while we handle everything else.

Describe for readers the building’s unique and distinctive design.
It’s both striking and surprising. When I was first interviewing for this job, I hadn’t yet seen the building, and I think I was assuming that as a Marine Corps structure it would be, well, sort of a bunker. I wasn’t thinking “innovative,” but when I first saw it—it was under construction at the time—I was absolutely awestruck.

The building’s shape recalls the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of that event so pervades the Marine Corps’ culture that the architects—the Denver-based Fentress Group—could never get past the image as the strongest inspiration for the building. The image is very strong, and we think it’s very compelling and evocative.

Because the building will be gifted by the foundation to the federal government in 2011, when all the construction debt has been retired, the building had to fully meet all the very demanding federal design and construction standards.

It’s a work in progress, isn’t it?
Absolutely. The current museum encompasses 120,000 square feet—most of which is exhibit space—with construction of an additional 80,000 square feet of display area scheduled to commence in 2012. We have also programmed for a separate building that would house our storage, restoration and conservation spaces. Ultimately, the campus will include a hotel and conference center, the latter of which will accommodate both reunion groups and high-security Defense Department conferences.

What about the museum’s holdings?
Our collection covers the history of the Marine Corps from its founding in 1775 to the present day, but our exhibits—which include aircraft, vehicles, equipment, weapons, uniforms, artworks, photographs and dioramas—end with the Vietnam War. With the additional 80,000 square feet of space we’ll be able to expand the exhibits to the present day, which is extremely important, because Marine veterans of Beirut, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan cannot currently see comprehensive representations of their own military histories.

And the staff?
Staffing was an issue when I arrived—some of the former staffers at the Washington Navy Yard had not wanted to make the move to Quantico, so we initially had just 17 people. Getting the museum going was a very big job for a very small team. We were working 70- to 80-hour weeks to cover all the areas that needed to be covered.

How did things change?
We now have 49 full-time federal employees, many of them young people with masters’ degrees in museum work. By the time they come to us, they’ve typically been through several museum internships and a job or two, and they really hit the ground running. We also have about 176 volunteer docents—people from all walks of life, many of them former Marines—who donate their time and are indispensable.

Do active-duty Marines play a role in the museum’s operations?
We usually have anywhere from 12 to 18, working primarily as visitor service representatives. It’s important to have the uniformed presence here, and it creates a nice link between the veterans who visit us and the Marines currently serving. Most of our Marines have been deployed two or three times and will be deployed again, and working here temporarily provides them with some quiet time. That’s an especially positive thing for those dealing with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder; it’s very good for them, and we’re very happy to have them.

How important is it for museums to preserve and present the nation’s military history?
We all want to preserve what is ours, and the Marine Corps has played a large part in the nation’s history. This museum helps inform the American people—and our Marines—about the role the service has played in that history. Like it or not, American history has a lot of blood in it. We’ve fought a lot of wars, and the study of our nation’s history is to a very large extent the study of military history.

Unlike the nation’s other military services, the Marine Corps doesn’t have an all-encompassing museum system. There are other museums, and this office approves them and provides guidance to them but does not oversee them. They are command museums that reflect the needs, interest and budget support available within their respective commands.

Do you play a role in recruitment?
It makes sense from the recruiting perspective for the Corps to present its history in the best light. While the museum is not part of the Corps’ public-relations effort, our mission does include supporting the recruitment, training, education and retention of Marines.

What has been the most challenging part of moving the museum forward?
The museum is an externally focused component of the Marine Corps, and we have a need for open communications, information-sharing and making ourselves as accessible to the public as possible. Those attributes are not very military, and we’ve had to develop ways to do what we need to do, while at the same time adhering to the Marine Corps’ information security requirements.

How successful has the museum been in its mission?
Our visitor numbers have been higher than predicted, and we’re on track to do better over the coming year. People tell us they’re getting a high-end museum experience without having to deal with the crowds in downtown Washington. We’re free, easy to get to, open every day but Christmas, and parking is not a problem. Those are qualities that keep visitors coming back, and a very high percentage say they recommend us to their friends. This is an attractive place, and people feel good while they’re here. That’s despite the fact we tackle such issues as injury, death and sacrifice. Most people tell us they leave here feeling proud.

What do you see in the museum’s future?
During the museum’s first years we’ve focused on getting the building up and running and on preparing to add the additional exhibit spaces. Where we go from here is outside the museum’s walls. We can assist educators on a national level, in addition to what we now do regionally. We can do more to support the Marine Corps mission at other locations; we can expand our interactions with the nation’s other military services; we can do more on a global scale to spread the word about Marine Corps history. And when people speak of Marine Corps material history, I want them to automatically think of us.

The NMMC is just off I-95 in Quantico, Va., 36 miles south of Washington, D.C. Admission and parking are free.