The Battle of the Bulge gallery within The National WWII Museum’s Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries immerses visitors in the frozen Ardennes forest, where citizen soldiers—caught off guard and without proper winter gear—defended their battered line against Hitler’s final surge. A large-scale dimensional video (left) and running audio of German and American voices evokes the chaos and danger of this costly battle, as visitors walk through the recreated forest toward a camouflaged Opel staff car, abandoned by the German army.
The National World War II Museum, located in New Orleans, presents history on a grand scale. It began as the National D-Day Museum, which opened June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of D-Day. Three years later Congress designated it “America’s National World War II Museum.” It uses an astonishing collection of original artifacts, interactive displays and a Hollywood-quality 4D film to tell the story of America’s role in one of the pivotal events of the 20th century. On January 14, 2015, the Museum’s executive vice president, Stephen Watson, took time to talk with HistoryNet‘s senior editor, Gerald D. Swick, about the exhibits, special events, and unique elements that redefine the museum experience for visitors.
HistoryNet: In 2014 Travelers Choice ranked The National World War II Museum #4 among top museums in the US and #11 among top museums of the world. What are some of the features that led to those lofty rankings?
Stephen Watson: The addition of the 4D film Beyond All Boundaries, produced and narrated by Tom Hanks, in 2009 was a real game changer for the Museum and remains our most popular experience to date. But the core of what we do has always been in line with the storytelling style of our founder, Stephen Ambrose. The foundation of the Museum is the stories of the 16 million Americans that served and those that were “all in this together” on the Home Front. Technology certainly helps us create more visceral and moving experiences, but at the end of the day, our guests respond to how personal the Museum is.
HN: Beyond All Boundaries —what does that title mean?
SW: That’s a great question. When we started doing work on the film in 2007 we had “Beyond All Boundaries” as a working title. We never really thought that would end up being the final title for it. The initial reason we identified that working title was we wanted to create a large-format, “Wow!” experience for the visitor that really gave them a sense that World War II really reached into just about every part of the world. The scale of it—the destruction, the death, the mobilization in this country on the Home Front—it went beyond all boundaries in so many dimensions in terms of combat, munitions, combat deaths, civilian deaths, involvement of countries. We wanted visitors to understand this large and broad and overwhelming war went beyond all and any boundaries that we had previously had. That was the idea behind it. As we worked on production and on developing the script, we always thought something else would come along to replace that title—it never did, and the more we worked on it, the more we felt that really was the right title.
It’s been a game-changer for us. The opening of the Solomon Victory Theater and Beyond All Boundaries in 2009 triggered this rapid period of growth here at the Museum that really hasn’t stopped yet. Beyond All Boundaries gives visitors a dramatic, broad overview of the war in a very personal and engaging way. It’s drawn in an audience that may not have come to a military history museum, but they hear about the movie at the Museum, and they are drawn in by the allure of Tom Hanks. It’s also a way for visitors who don’t have a lot of time at the Museum to have this really rich and engaging experience as the grounding point for their visit, and then they can choose other galleries around that. It’s been great for school groups that increasingly have pressures on their curriculum and their time; it allows us to give them this rich and full experience in just under an hour.
HN: The planning required to create a museum the size of The National World War II Museum must have been on par with the planning for the D-Day invasion. How many square feet does the Museum encompass?
SW: Our current campus includes three major exhibit pavilions (Louisiana Pavilion, US Freedom Pavilion – Boeing Center, and Campaigns of Courage Pavilion), a 4D theater, entertainment venue, artifact restoration workspace, four retail locations, and two dining venues – all told, that comes to approximately 220,500 square feet of public space. The addition of Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries in December 2015 will add 10,040 square feet of gallery space. The Liberation Pavilion and Hall of Democracy (both currently planned for 2017) will complete the six-acre campus in downtown New Orleans.
HN: What are your plans beyond completing the six-acre campus in 2017?
SW: We’re beginning to shift some of our focus now. Obviously, we still have a fair amount of work to do to complete the physical campus. The Liberation Pavilion will pick up story at the end of war, showcase the cost of victory, the devastation across the world. It will bring visitors into the story of the Holocaust. It will give visitors a sense of the legacy of the war, the things that happened in the aftermath geopolitically as well as here at home, such as the GI Bill and the Nuremburg trials, the Marshall Plan and what have you. So we still have some work to do.
We also have a special exhibit pavilion and a pavilion we’re calling Hall of Democracy, which will become the intellectual home for our collection, our educational outreach initiative, and that’s really where we’re beginning to think more about our future. We’re going to have this large, amazing campus here that will always be the jewel and the centerpiece of how we engage our audiences, but as a national museum we also take our educational mission beyond the brick-and-mortar visit in New Orleans as something that is equally important. So I think beyond 2017 we will see more educational outreach, digital initiatives, partnerships with higher education institutions, traveling exhibitions, residential programs in the summer here as well as abroad in campuses in Normandy for high school and college students. So there will be an expansion of our programming for both adults and high school and college audiences. That’s where I see there’s still a lot of work to be done, and it’s increasingly becoming a bigger focus here as we go into the home stretch of building the campus in New Orleans.
HN: What will the Hall of Democracy actually contain?
SW: The Hall of Democracy will have three elements. On the first floor there will be a 5,000-square-foot special exhibit gallery. Most of what we are building here on the campus are permanent exhibitions; artifacts may change and obviously they need to be maintained, but the stories they tell will essentially remain intact. The Hall of Democracy special exhibits space will give us a place for temporary, changing exhibits that we either produce or bring in from other institutions. The second thing that it will have is a rare and iconic artifact space. We have some very rare and specialized collections that we want to make available to the visiting public to view.
The third thing is, and we’re still developing the concept on this, is a media center that will contain our digital collection and will be the hub for our programming initiative. We have the conference that the World History Group has been a kind sponsor of for several years. We have a lot of public programming here. We have distant learning initiatives that we go directly into classrooms across the country. We envision the Hall of Democracy as a center where a lot of these activities will originate from.
HN: How much time should visitors expect to spend touring the Museum?
SW: Everyone views museums in their own way. Many visitors will go through in a half day, selecting things of particular interest along the way, while others may allot 2-3 days and not feel that they saw everything. We encourage guests to research the Museum website and mobile app in advance to plan their time accordingly. We also have an extremely helpful staff and a corps of highly engaged volunteers to help you plan your route when you arrive. For those wishing to spend multiple days with us, ask about the second day ticket for only six dollars.
HN: What are just a few of the most unusual artifacts on permanent display?
SW: Our curators have made a special effort to focus on items that tell a story. This is what gives so many of our artifacts value. In our newest exhibit, Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries, you will see a silver teapot engraved with the initials of Adolph Hitler as well as a set of dog tags, unique because they are marked “H” for Hebrew and because someone took the time and care to knit silencers to keep them from clinking together at night—which could have meant life or death to the wearer. We have large macro artifacts like the B-17 that crash landed in Greenland and all aboard survived due to the ingenuity of the crew. There is an LCVP replica built of Higgins Industry specifications by a volunteer crew made up of some original Higgins employees —they call it “the last LCVP off the line.” Every visitor is going to be attracted to something different, but we hope they can find a piece of their own story here at the Museum.
HN: The Road to Berlin exhibit you mentioned—that was the largest undertaking since the opening of the Museum back in June 2000. Tell us a bit about this display and how long it will be running.
SW: Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries is a permanent exhibit located in our newest exhibit pavilion, Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters. The exhibits are unlike anything we’ve done before, taking guests through immersive environments that give a glimpse into the environmental challenges faced by our forces. Visitors will travel from the sands of North Africa, to the shores of Sicily, through the brutal Italian Campaign, over the skies of Europe and beaches of Normandy, up against hedgerows, into the frigid forests of the Bulge, and ultimately into the ruins of Berlin. Throughout they encounter the personal stories that have been a hallmark of this Museum from the beginning.
HN: Would you give us an example of what visitors can expect in one of these environmental displays?
SW: One example in our Road to Berlin gallery is the Battle of the Bulge. Anytime I’ve talked to veterans of the battle one thing that always comes to their minds is how cold it was and how tough the conditions were. We created in the Road to Berlin a gallery to evoke the feeling of what it would have been like to have been in this event in December of 1944: the trees, the snow, we have a wind effect in there that gives you the feeling it is colder than in the rest of the gallery space. We have a German staff car in there camouflaged as it would have been in the Ardennes Forest in 1944. Interspersed within this space are artifact cases and three of what we call scrims, which are essentially projection screens with a five-minute show that describes various phases of the battle. It’s a combination of archival footage, an original script that we wrote, and some original scenes that we shot in the forests of Idaho about a year ago. The environment helps you understand what the conditions would have been like, that it was cold, it was a forest. The environment enhances the media exhibit and the visitor’s understanding of the battle by recreating something that is close to what it may have felt like. Obviously, this is not combat, it’s not 50 below zero, but we feel like it’s another important way to engage visitors and give them a better sense of what it might have been like to be there.
Another example is when you come into the Air War section, we have a recreation of a Quonset hut from Thorpe Abbotts Field in England, where Eighth Air Force bomber crews would have gone for a briefing before a mission. We actually have a large interactive table that sets up what a briefing would have been like and then what actually took place in a mission.
So, everywhere you go through the gallery—North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Northern Europe from the bocage after the D-Day landings, the march into Germany and the utter destruction that had taken place in many of these cities—these environments are tools to help engage the senses.
HN: Another exhibition, Manufacturing Victory: The Arsenal of Democracy, is also continuing through May 31, 2015. What does that exhibition cover?
SW: Manufacturing Victory: The Arsenal of Democracy focuses on how our nation mobilized to provide the weapons, vehicles and supplies needed to secure victory—starting even before Pearl Harbor. But it also explores the term “Arsenal of Democracy” as we believe FDR meant it, not just the industrial component, but every available man, woman, and child contributing everything they could.
HN: All museums are looking for ways to appeal to younger generations who have been raised on interactive devices and the Internet, but The National World War II Museum has an interactive display that I believe is unique. Tell us about Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience.
SW: Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience takes visitors through the last mission of the most successful submarine of WWII—the USS Tang. Not only do we use environmental technology to tell this story, but we make it personal. Each guest is assigned an actual crewmember and at the end of the journey they discover if their crewman is among the handful who survived this tragic event. Similarly, last December we launched the Dog Tag Experience where guests can select an actual WWII participant and follow that person’s journey through the war. They can select from any branch or service as well as Home Front, journalists, even a survivor of the Holocaust. It not only adds a personal dimension to history, but also is an opportunity for someone who may be looking to better understand what the war was like for a family member.
HN: The Museum also hosts webinars and special events throughout the year. What is scheduled for 2015?
SW: The major event is the opening of Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater galleries in December, but we will also open a new special exhibit in July on the African American experience in WWII, combine WWII history and wargaming with the Heat of Battle convention in August, get up close to iconic WWII-era warbirds with the Air Power Expo in October, revisit 1945 with the annual International Conference on WWII in November, and host numerous lectures, film screenings, and educational events like Louisiana History Day, High School Quiz Bowl, our annual Robotics competition, educational Summer Camps for kids, and our inbound student residential program—Student Leadership Academy.
HN: There are so many facets to The National World War II Museum that we could go on talking all day, but to wrap things up, is there anything you’d like to add in closing?
SW: One thing that all the technology in the world can never recreate is what it is like to sit down and talk with an actual World War II veteran. We are still fortunate to have about 30 World War II veterans who volunteer to come to the Museum and speak with visitors and student groups. But the opportunity to meet them is waning. I encourage your readers to plan for the time to take advantage of it as part of their visit to the Museum.
Your readers are folks who are pretty interested in history and military history, and in some ways we’re preaching to the choir, but I also think it’s important to say to your readers that as they come across World War II veterans in their own community, take a minute to stop and thank these men and women for their service. We won’t have them with us much longer. We really are—we’ve been saying it for a long time, but we really are now entering that phase where we don’t have much time left to actually talk to these veterans and have these experiences, and I think it’s important that we reach out to them, thank them, and talk with them in these last few years while we still have them with us. We need to give our young people opportunities to talk with them and learn a little bit about their experiences and what their lives were like when they were young people. I have young children, and any opportunity I get I encourage them to talk to a veteran, to say thanks and ask a question. Even as children, it has a big impact on them. In addition to, “Come to our museum and meet our veterans,” it is important we talk with these men and women wherever they are in this country.
When a World War II veteran comes here with his family, it’s often the very first time that family has learned anything about their loved one’s service. It’s almost like by coming to this Museum, the veteran feels like he has permission to talk about it. It is pretty amazing and overwhelming to see these families who were excited about coming but didn’t realize what was going to happen when they got here, what they would learn not only about World War II by viewing the exhibits, but what they end up learning about their father. Oftentimes, the children never knew.
HN: Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to share this information with HistoryNet’s readers.
SW: Thank you for the opportunity.
To see hours of operation, ticket prices and other information for planning a trip to The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, visit www.nationalww2museum.org.