Paul Morando is chief of exhibits at the National Museum of the United States Army. In development for decades, the 185,000-square-foot museum on an 84-acre site at Fort Belvoir, Va., opened in 2020 but was temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The facility reopened to visitors on June 14, 2021—the Army’s 246th birthday. Morando gave Military History a behind-the-scenes look at the museum, sharing details about its cutting-edge design, interactive elements and impressive array of artifacts from the span of Army history.
Explain the design intent and layout of the museum.
The artifacts and the way the galleries are laid out focus on individual soldier’s stories, while also connecting the collective history of each war and campaign in which American soldiers have fought.
The artifacts complement those stories. But we didn’t want just random pieces. We wanted artifacts that had a connection to soldiers. That perspective allowed us to dictate how the galleries were going to be designed. Each gallery introduces certain themes and features color palettes and designs to invoke the time period.
What was the thought process behind the interactive elements?
We knew we wanted to have interactive displays because of different learning styles. Those who like to watch and engage and interact have that ability. But the galleries are not dominated by interactive displays. We also have the more traditional approach of artifacts, labels and images. The key was trying to find the balance.
What’s really neat is that some of the interactive displays allow you to compare tactics in different conflicts—like between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, or to World War II.
Tell us about the Army and Society gallery.
The separate, stand-alone gallery looks at the relationship between the Army and civilian society. You’ll explore many different themes, such as civilians supporting the Army, the Army supporting civilians and how the public views the Army.
From where did you obtain artifacts, and which is the oldest?
The majority were already in our collection. Others were purchased specifically for the museum. Our oldest object is a rapier discovered at Jamestown, Va., dating from 1607.
Do you have a favorite artifact?
My favorite piece is the sword that belonged to Capt. John Berry, an American artillery officer who served at Fort McHenry. At the 1814 Battle of Baltimore this sword was on [Berry’s] person while Francis Scott Key was writing our national anthem. So while it’s a significant Army artifact, it’s actually an American national artifact, and I really treasure that.
Did families donate items to the museum?
Before we opened, donations were limited. Once word got out the museum was opening, and more so after we opened, people started coming in droves to donate artifacts. It puts a lot of work on my team, because we have to figure out what would make sense to bring into the collection versus generic materials. It’s typical for a museum of this size to get that reaction.
Explain the museum’s “Soldier’s Story” pylons.
We have permanent “Soldier’s Story” pylons through the lobby and into the main exhibit wing. We wanted to showcase stories of individual soldiers. On the back of the last six pylons we have a digital version, and it rotates. This gives us the ability to add multiple stories. About 60 extra stories on these screens look at a wide variety of soldiers and the diversity of our Army. We certainly can’t easily change the permanent exhibits in terms of adding stories, but we can do it this way. This has actually been very powerful in connecting with the public. I’ll see people stand for 20 minutes just looking at all the stories.
How long did it take to select stories to showcase?
It took years. This museum doesn’t necessarily just focus on medal recipients. You’ll see the stories of Audie Murphy and Sgt. [Alvin] York, and we have Sgt. York’s helmet—things like that. But we also want to focus on the everyday soldiers whose stories you may not know but are important. Visitors can connect more with those types of stories, because they can see a reflection of themselves in that individual soldier’s story.
What’s the story behind the tank in the Global War gallery?
It came out of Germany and is an original [M4 Sherman]. This is the Cobra King—probably the most iconic artifact in the Army because of its story. At the Battle of the Bulge this particular tank was the first into Bastogne to break the German siege. It’s truly significant, whether you’re a tank aficionado or not. There are visitors who just come to this museum to see this tank.
Describe the D-Day tableaux in the Global War gallery.
It depicts a cargo net of soldiers coming down from a troopship into a Higgins boat. The whole display is a composite based on historical images. The size of the net and wooden beams used are all accurate based on images I looked at. How the figures were essentially positioned on the net and the way they’re supposed to be holding their hands is extremely accurate. All the equipment you see on the figures is authentic in terms of what they carried. This is one of six original Higgins boats associated with the D-Day landings. We don’t know specifically what beach it landed on, but it was used during D-Day. It came here out of England.
The D-Day tableaux is my favorite display. I personally directed where each of the cast figures sat on the [Higgins] boat and where they were placed. In fact, I remember climbing up the net, as a mock-up in the studio, to show how I wanted some of these soldiers’ positions to be cast. I wanted to get it right.
Do you get feedback from veterans who visit?
Veterans connect with all the galleries in the museum. Of course, Vietnam, Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are going to have a stronger connection to some degree with exhibits they are familiar with.
What I find unique is that veterans do connect with stories other than their own—as with the exhibit of Col. Henry Knox’s trail. During the winter of 1775–76 Knox got about 60 cannons from Fort Ticonderoga for George Washington to emplace at Boston, and those guns helped drive the British out of the city. That mission was very important, especially early on in the war. The exhibit model conveys how difficult it was to move a cannon from upstate New York to Boston. I’ve seen veterans with their families circled around this piece explaining the logistics of war.
Why is there a permanent Medal of Honor gallery?
We wanted to give the public an understanding of how the medal came to be, how its meaning has changed over time and, more important, to highlight specific stories of soldiers and their actions in different wars. We wanted to focus on the story of the medal itself—it’s really so symbolic, obviously representing bravery, service and the Army values we hold so dear.
The interactive displays in the gallery allow visitors to explore a “What Would You Do?” scenario that brings them closer to the decisions made by a particular soldier—one of the best ways to tell a story. It’s very simple but also very engaging. Users are given options like, “Would you jump on that grenade,” or “move into the line of fire”? It’s quite powerful.
How did you decide which Medals of Honor to showcase?
There wasn’t a plan in terms of how many, what type or which soldiers who received the medal should go on display. First, it’s whether or not we have the medals. A lot of Medals of Honor stay with the family if the soldier has passed away. However, we do have a good number of Medals of Honor. We also have a Medal of Honor garden with a wall honoring all the Army recipients.
Will the museum present traveling exhibits?
Yes. The plan is to bring in traveling exhibits and to develop temporary and special exhibits. We have a special gallery, with 5,000 square feet of exhibition space, meant to be used as a rotating gallery for new exhibits as they come in. Next year we’re going to receive a traveling exhibit on Bob Hope [“So Ready for Laughter”] from the National WWII Museum. Right now the space is occupied by “The Art of Soldiering,” an exhibit that looks at Army art over time.
What do you hope people will take away from visits to the museum?
Any type of visitor can connect with any type of story here. The idea is that after their visit they hopefully go on to learn more about that story, and, more important, they learn more not just about an individual, a battle or a war, but about the Army as a whole. Then they make the connection that the Army is an important part of how this country came to be. The Army has always been there—in every battle, in every campaign, in every significant moment of American history. MH
This article appeared in the November 2021 issue of Military History. For more stories, subscribe and visit us on Facebook.