Friday, September 25, 2015

Educating at the National WWII Museum

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jeremy Collins, the Director of Travel & Conference Services at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. In this interview, he discusses his career path as well as the programs offered by the museum. Also revealing are his rewards of working at this phenomenal museum.

How did you end up at the National WWII Museum?  What does your position entail?

Like many History Majors, I found myself facing my last semester at the University of Missouri in Columbia without a clear idea of what I wanted to do or could do with a History Degree.  Fortunately, during Thanksgiving 2000, my family went to New Orleans to visit my brother.  He had just moved down there and created an itinerary for us for that weekend.  One of the stops was at the newly opened National D-Day Museum, which opened on June 6, 2000.

As I walked through the exhibits and felt history come to life, I looked around and could tell that all of the other visitors that day had the same feeling.  I thought “Well this could be a cool thing to do when I graduate!”

The following months saw me communicating with the Curator of the Museum discussing a possible summer internship.  I was able to work for the summer as the Museum prepared to open its “D-Days in the Pacific” Gallery, which was set to open in December 2001.  As the summer ended, I offered to extend my internship through the completion and opening of the Pacific Gallery.  They agreed and told me that they would even hold my position after graduation.  I accepted!

The museum has a number of dynamic speakers lined up in the forthcoming weeks.  What topics have visitors been greeted to and what is up next?

We have a very full and enriching line up of programming throughout the year.  In July, Jonathan Jordan spoke on his latest book “American Warlords,” about FDR and his war cabinet that led the country to victory.  This was followed by Alex Kershaw’s official book launch for his latest “Avenue of Spies” on August 4th.  It is about an American doctor who was Paris during the war. On September 1st we hosted Dr. Elizabeth Norman, who spoke of the nurses of Bataan.  Her book, “We Band of Angles,” discusses how these women helped the men during the battle, and then their subsequent captivity in the Japanese camps.

On September 17th we were honored to have the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner Dr. David Kertzer, whose book, “The Pope and Mussolini,” traces the dual paths that Il Duce and Pope Pius XI went on in the years leading up to WWII.

Today, we are partnering with the 100th Bomb Group Reunion Association to host a public program on Operation CHOWHOUND, an American operation, combined with the British Operation MANNA, which helped feed the starving people of Holland in April/May 1945, following the starvation winter of 1944/45.

On September 30th we are hosting a young historian, Jessica Greenburg, who will speak on her grandfather’s personal experience at the end of the war in Europe as he helped reopen the very first synagogue in post-war Berlin.

See a full listing of the museum's events here

Rick Atkinson unveils his newest book in May of 2013 at the museum.

How do you think guest lecturers benefit museums?

These lectures, like previous ones, receive extremely wide exposure, especially with the Museum’s 100,000+ members around the country.  We promote heavily to all of our members and supporters, particularly since we began to live stream them. These are all people who will: 1) buy a copy of the book the speaker is talking about or: 2) get more involved with the Museum’s mission and plans for the future.

As America’s National WWII Museum, we have found that our speakers see a tremendous value in being associated with our wonderful institution.

For those who cannot attend your museum events in person, how can they still take advantage of these opportunities?

All of these programs are filmed and streamed live on the Museum’s Livestream account.  The direct links are created 2-4 weeks in advance of the program.

What overseas adventures does the museum offer to adults and students alike?

The Museum has been leading adult travel programs overseas for over a decade now.  While most of our adult tours run to Normandy, we have expanded upon our offerings over the years.  This has included the Pacific, Mediterranean, England, the Ardennes, Germany and Russia.  Over the coming 12 months we will be running a Pearl Harbor tour, a Band of Brothers tour, Battle of the Bulge, and a number of Normandy tours.  We will also be touring eastern Germany and Poland as well!

Three years ago we started our Normandy Academy, which brings students to New Orleans for a few days of preparatory work and then over to Normandy for a full week.  These students are not just passengers on a trip, but rather part of the program, as they study and then lecture on specific sites of D-Day and even debate one another as to the decisions made by the commanders on both sides.

We also offer a full week program that brings students down to New Orleans for a more in-depth experience at the Museum, but also takes them to other historic sites that our city has to offer, including the Chalmette Battlefield where Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans.

Next summer we will begin a longer program out at Pearl Harbor where students will have a mix of classroom instruction and battlefield touring.

What do you enjoy most about your job?  What has been your most memorable moment?

Having just passed my 14 year mark there are certainly a dozen moments each year that I could recount, but I will name a few.

Having the opportunity to have meet some of the leading scholars and authors in the field and working with them on our various programs.  These includes Rick Atkinson, Don Miller, Richard Frank, Sir Max Hastings, Antony Beevor, Alex Kershaw, Lynne Olson…the list goes on and on, and I feel bad for leaving so many great people off this list, but I figured this list would be very familiar with your readers.

Traveling to various points of the world with history buffs who are eager to learn about this epic event has opened my eyes immensely.  There is hardly a better way to learn than to walk the ground and see the sites that the war was fought.  From Omaha Beach, to the hill that Audrey Murphy took in Southern France for his DSC; the Castle that overlooks the hill which Vernon Baker attacked, receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions 50 years after the fact; looking out over the open rice field that the 6th Rangers crawled through to reach the gates of Cabanatuan.

Again, this list could go on and on as well.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the opportunity that I have had to meet veterans.  As I type this I am watching the 1952 film “Above and Beyond” with Robert Taylor portraying Paul Tibbets.  I had the honor of escorting Gen. Tibbets when he was at the Museum for our 2001 Pacific Grand Opening weekend.  I was honored to have developed a brief, and long-distance friendship with Medal of Honor recipient Walt Ehlers of the 1st Infantry Division.  Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot has been a frequent visitor and speaker at the Museum too.  He just turned 100 years old!

These veterans are all famous, and wonderful individuals, but I would have to say that the veterans who volunteer at the Museum, those that I have really grown close to over the last 14 years, are the ones I have learned the most from and really cherish the memories I have, especially as there are fewer and fewer over the years.

Jeremy Collins at Middleside Barracks in Corregidor.

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