Sunday, March 3, 2013

Marine Disneyland

Exploring the National Museum of the Marine Corps

On a fairly recent trip to Virginia, I was presented the opportunity to explore the 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 a
Sikorsky HRS-2 helicopter in Korea.

Not only are there realistic dioramas, but a wide variety of historic aircraft are suspended from the immense glass ceiling.  Everything from a WWI era biplane, a set of WWII Corsairs, and a Harrier jet look poised to attack.  Right outside the lobby is the Scuttlebutt Theater, which offers brief insights into the personal stories of Marines from the 1940s to the present.  They include well known Civil War historian Ed Bearrs, who was severely wounded in New Britain in 1944.

Upon entrance into the museum itself, we were greeted by this Revolutionary era Marine in the hallway known as the Legacy Walk.  Here, museum designers did an excellent job of contextualizing Marine Corps history within the broader social, political, and technological history of the United States.  Artifacts like a Babe Ruth autographed baseball and a photo of suffragettes become intertwined with the forces that shaped the Corps.  The setup was one of the best timeline exhibits I've seen.

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?

Another item of note connects with abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859.  Responding to the seizure of the U.S. arsenal there and the threat of slave revolt, a handful of Marines from the Washington Naval Yard were called in to suppress the uprising.  With Brown having sought refuge in the engine house of the arsenal, the Marines tried using this sledgehammer to knock down the double doors.  After this tool failed, a heavy ladder was used as a battering ram--ultimately leading to Brown's capture after a brief close quarter confrontation.  A similar sledgehammer is on display in the John Brown Museum at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.  I wonder if this is the right one.

The exhibits on the Civil War were surprisingly in-depth.  This scene shows "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.

Of course, Gettysburg is inescapable.  While no Marines fought at Gettysburg, the President's Own Marine Corps Band accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg in November 1863.  There, they played many patriotic melodies including a special dirge for the dead of the battlefield.  Much like Gettysburg's visitor center, a narrator orates the address in the exhibit.  So too is there seating to allow visitors a moment of contemplation as they soak in the important words.  The deeper meanings of the Address resonate throughout other displays in the museum.

Several excellent films are shown in the various galleries.  One short documentary shown in the Global Expeditionary Force exhibits placed American imperialism within the context of the Gilded Age.  The film above is placed within a life-size WWI diorama.  The film depicts the Marines' fight at Belleau Wood in June 1918 when the 4th Marine Brigade sustained over 1,000 casualties in their advance to the German lines.  This short movie certainly captures that intensity.

I am constantly fascinated by the words and exploits of combat correspondents during wartime.  This exhibit chronicles the story of thirty-one year old reporter Floyd Gibbons of the Chicago Tribune.  Not one to easily abide by military censorship policy, Gibbons wrote, "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.

In a gallery of weaponry used in the First World War, the affects of chemical weapons such as Mustard Gas were described in horrific detail.  Vignettes such as this offered an appropriately eerie atmosphere when discussing the grim realities of trench warfare.

On the flip side of that, a children's activity center was colorful and welcoming to families and young students.  The "History meets Blue's Clues" type setting here at "Chesty's Corner" may seem unusual to some.  That said, making the museum's kid-friendly mascot a canine caricature of beloved general Lewis "Chesty" Puller is more than creative and amusing.

As I've stated before, the museum's strength is its ability to blend the military picture within broader themes of American life--including the Industrial Revolution, segregation, and even sports.  Naturally, the story of the Marine Corps cannot be fully told without delving into the stories of the home front, especially during the Second World War.  In this exhibit, visitors are greeted to a depiction of a military family hearing war news over the radio while Newsreel clips fade in and out of the background.  This display demonstrated a great implementation of primary sources from the war era.

As you may have surmised, the WWII galleries were the largest in the museum.  Of course, the Holy Grails of the exhibit are the two flags that were raised on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.  To reduce harm to the two flags that were raised, they are rotated to and from this display case.  The one that colleague Cas and I saw that day is the one featured in the iconic Joe Rosenthal photo that you are all familiar with.  Pretty awesome, I know.

I could not help but be amazed by the detail and special effects in many of the exhibits.  The most impressive was the "Frozen Chosin" recreation.  Visitors walk into a dimly lit room kept at fifty degrees to offer a sense of the darkness and coldness of the Chosin Reservoir battle in December 1950.  Lighting effects give the illusion of tracer bullets flying past you while the sounds of battle and radio communications echo through the cavernous gallery.  Because my photo cannot give it justice, 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.

1 comment:

  1. Jared,

    Thanks for this review. I hope to get there soon. Did they have an A-4 Skyhawk on display or a F-8? These were the two planes I worked on in the Marines 1962-1966.

    Larry Freiheit