National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico. Pulling into the parking lot, I was rather overwhelmed by the magnitude of the structure. Designed to symbolize the flag raising atop Iwo Jima, the museum is an imposing one. Like many large museums, the exhibits were built in phases--beginning with WWI through Vietnam War history. Only more recently has the story of the early republic through the Spanish American War been incorporated into the museum's vast narrative. Let's take a look inside.
In the main entrance foyer, the Leatherneck Gallery, visitors are greeted with life-size dioramas of Marines heading into combat. This one features and LVT-1 amphibious tractor breaching the defensive log wall on the Pacific island of Tarawa in WWII. The attention to detail is excellent. Circling the upper walls of the gallery are black and white portraits of Marines from various historical time periods. On the other end of the lobby, troops are shown disembarking from aSikorsky HRS-2 helicopter in Korea.
As you might have guessed, the museum is filled to the brim with artifacts from the Corps' history. Perhaps one of the most unique items was this powder horn. The caption says: "During the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, and soldier, hunter, or farmer who used a rifle or musket needed a powder horn. This scrimshawed horn depicts a Marine officer and is inscribed 'August 20th A.D. . . made by H. Mack.' It is the earliest piece of Marine Corps equipment known to exist." How cool is that?Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. I wonder if this is the right one.
"Corporal Mackie sailing aboard the ironclad USS Galena along the James River toward Richmond, Virginia. As the ship reached the Confederate fort at Drewry's Bluff, it came under a barrage of heavy artillery fire. Mackie fired tirelessly at the enemy. When the naval gun crews were killed and wounded, he organized a party of Marines to operate the cannons for the remainder of the battle. For his valor and bravery, President Abraham Lincoln awarded him the Medal of Honor - the first Marine to receive one." As best as I could tell, the Marines' commentary here was more accurate than their marker they placed on the Manassas battlefield in 2011.
"I am up at the front and entering Belleau Wood with the U.S. Marines." He was subsequently wounded three times, including a painful wound in the left eye. His time in recovery allowed him to write about the fight in-depth. Marine censors worried that his graphic descriptions of battle would hurt their recruitment efforts, but the stories actually achieved the opposite. Gibbons' accounts offered the Marines some of their best PR yet, splashing their saga on front pages across the nation. The fight could be considered the birth of the "modern" Corps.
beloved general Lewis "Chesty" Puller is more than creative and amusing.
check out the virtual tour page and click on "Related Media" to see video and hear the "Immersion Soundtrack." A subsequent gallery allows visitors to "disembark" from a shaking helicopter onto a mock Vietnam firebase (with the thermostat turned up to eighty degrees). Immersive indeed.
There is a definite strength to museums such as this. Lively dioramas, an endless bounty of artifacts, carefully crafted CGI, and interactive displays make this one fun museum to explore. In fact, one could call this place Marine Disneyland--for it is in large part a historical amusement park. On a contrary point, does the coolness factor of such a museum have an inherent historical and cultural danger? It is not the intention of the museum to glorify warfare. Indeed, many of the films shown within are graphic in nature. Nevertheless, some of the children I saw exploring the museum treated it as a military playground where the deeper meanings and themes were lost amidst the flashes and bangs. This is not the fault of the museum or its administrators, but perhaps of the society in which the young visitors are raised. If anything, it reveals the challenges of conveying history to students in a balanced manner. Or maybe I'm simply misreading what I saw.
Regardless of what cultural interpretations one makes about the museum, one thing cannot be mistaken: this is the future of mega museums. Similar to the Smithsonian and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, new museums are no longer stuffy, archaic sites with old things behind glass. They are becoming learning centers in which entertainment and education become one and the same. When considering this with the rise of tech-savvy youth, one certainly sees more benefits than risks in this realm of sharing the past.