If you have any interest at all in anything that can possibly be related to military history, then you want to go to the National World War 2 Museum. It’s huge (with tons of exhibits and artifacts), it’s new (using all the latest in interactive display techniques and exhibit design), and it’s conveniently located near the Superdome, interstate highways, and one of the trolley lines. It’s very highly rated by the travel sites. Mostly, I suspect, because WW2 is in that historical “sweet spot” of being far back enough that there are very few people around with any first-hand experience of the era, but not so far back that there *aren’t* ant of those people, the era isn’t completely alien to us, and there are still a buttload of artifacts around.
It’s also very, very new, and still a bit disorganized in a way. One of the key galleries, the “Road to Tokyo” (the companion to “Road to Berlin”), wasn’t open when I visited. Apparently, it’s still under construction… The whole museum occupies a total of five buildings, but they are not yet directly connected. You’ve got to go outside and cross a street to get to three of them from the main building. Speaking of the main building, there weren’t any signs that I saw telling me where to go to get to the various exhibits. It was pretty much wander around and hope you stumbled upon something. And in one of the three (that I counted) gift shops, a monitor was playing The Longest Day (arguably the best D-Day movie ever made) – but it was NOT available on the shelves of DVDs (which instead were filled with documentaries and more “correct” movies of recent vintage (e.g. Band of Brothers)). They probably don’t have the proper licensing arrangements, but come on – don’t promote something you’re not selling!
The biggest gallery, in more ways than one, is the “US Freedom Pavilion: Boeing Center”. And I’m not just talking about the ponderous name. It’s the location for all the big artifacts – the planes, tanks, and other vehicles. The vehicles, as I was told by one of the docents, are all in working order. Don’t know about the planes, though. They’ve probably been “slimmed down” a bit on the insides where we can’t see them in order to make it easier on the pavilion architecture. But at least they are the real thing and not replicas.
Given that it’s the “National” museum, and our current national climate, it probably should be expected and accepted that the museum is virtually only about the US involvement in the war. There’s a decent amount of German artifacts (collected as war souvenirs and “booty”) of course, but there’s not much readily viewable on the contributions of Great Britain or the Soviet Union. Or Italy, either before or after they switched sides. And the French Resistance only got seven items in two display cases (I counted). One thing I did notice, to my dismay, is that in a couple of the newsreel clips that they were showing, the ONLY thing in color was the American flag. You know, it is possible to go overboard with patriotism…
There’s a lot of stuff on the Home Front, though, which is great. One of the galleries that I had to struggle to find was for their “Fighting for the Right to Fight” exhibit, which was about how the African-American community struggled for equality and respect at home while being asked to fight for the country that denied them both. My favorite item in the whole museum was there. A little booklet produced and distributed in Great Britain advising the people there on how to deal with the racial inequality on display in the American armed forces.
The part that really made me smile was on the page facing that text. A section titled “American Ways Are Different” discussed the ethnic diversity of America by reference to a game between the “Yankees” and the “Red Sox” (the booklet’s quotes around the team names, not mine):
“Rizzuto, Rolfe, Heinrich, Rosar, Selkirk, Di Maggio, Keller, Gordon, Dickey, Priddy, Murphy. There are two points to notice in such a list. One, the diversity of the names, but second, and most important, the fact that the … owners of those names have come together into a team. This is true of the American nation as a whole…”
The author went on to praise the USA for its commitment to diversity – something we still need to be reminded of.
Even taking into account the understandable American bias, a couple of lacunae are noticeable. Outside their “Stage Door Canteen” restaurant, the hallway is a gallery of photos of Hollywood celebrities involved in the war effort. But they didn’t mention any baseball players, like CPO Bob Feller, USN. Shouldn’t it be worth a mention somewhere how FDR allowed for Major League Baseball to continue as a vital contribution to morale (though individual players could enlist and would still be subject to the draft)?
I’m glad that the museum is growing. I left with my head filled with ideas for future exhibits. They’ve got a movie theater on site; how about a series showing WWII movies with a panel discussion of historians putting the movies in the context of the times when they were made? Or screenings of episodes of WWII-related TV shows (Combat!, Rat Patrol, Twelve O’Clock High)? Commandos and special forces really came into their own in WWII – why not something on them? The war gave us many military advances like radar, jet aircraft, and infrared night-vision gear. How about an exhibit on the crazy weapons that didn’t work out (a rifle with a curved barrel for shooting around corners, “air cannons” that were supposed to knock planes out of the sky by hitting them with a blast of air…)? Or heck, how about a bit more on our many allies and the truly global scope of the war?
I’ve got a few more things to say about the Big Easy. Give me a few days to get my notes and thoughts together.