Military museums grapple with a mission that's only getting more complex

Towering over the treetops off Interstate 95 in Triangle, Virginia, the National Museum of the Marine Corps serves as a Rorschach test of sorts for the veterans who come across it.

Designed by Fentress Architects to evoke the iconic image of Marines planting an American flag at Iwo Jima, the museum takes the shape of a tilted pyramid, fashioned out of glass, concrete and a 210-foot steel mast that juts through the roof. But museum staff, in their interactions with visitors, have found that the design is open to interpretation. An infantry Marine may see the slanted structure as a soldier at port arms. An artilleryman could spot a howitzer at the ready. A pilot might envision the trajectory of an aircraft taking off.

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Just as the building's design prompts different readings, the museum's storytelling serves varying purposes, depending on the visitor. Veterans often see the museum, near Marine Corps Base Quantico, as a cathartic space to share with their families. The facility, with its free admission, also welcomes the general public. Of the museum's estimated 450,000 annual visitors, 70,000 are children participating in school programs.

In serving such disparate audiences, staff members discovered soon after the museum's 2006 opening that it needs to be much more than a feather in the Marine Corps' cap.

"It's always a critical balance," Marine Corps museum curator Owen L. Conner says. "It can be difficult sometimes, but it's good as long as you're aware of the complexities."

That mission is shared by Washington, D.C.'s National Museum of the U.S. Navy. Although that facility also is open to the public, its location within the walls of the Navy Yard means many patrons must fill out paperwork and clear a brief background check before entering the complex. As a result, the demographics of the museum's estimated 100,000 annual visitors skew toward veterans. But Mark T. Weber, the Navy museum's managing director and senior curator, isn't interested in "just preaching to the choir."

"We want to communicate to the public and inform them of why we need a Navy, why that's important to our national defense and what the Navy has done for us," Weber says. "As we craft our exhibits here, we want to make sure that we're not speaking too heavily just to that insider audience."

The Navy museum, which opened to the public in 1963, is housed in a repurposed naval gun factory. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by wood, rope and sails from the USS Constitution, a vessel that originally set sail in 1798. The sprawling hall is populated with model ships, infographics and various artifacts, including artillery manufactured in the building. Visitors also can peruse the Navy's Cold War Gallery across the street.

The museum doesn't fixate on certain uncomfortable chapters of Navy history, such as the 1991 Tailhook scandal, which resulted in disciplinary action against numerous Navy and Marine Corps officers after allegations of sexual misconduct. And the exhibits don't yet explore the war on terror, precluding the contentious Guantanamo Bay detention camp from inclusion.

Some items, however, do shine an unflattering light on the institution's past. The preventable loss of two Cold War-era nuclear submarines - the USS Scorpion and USS Thresher - is documented. One display includes the satirical Royal Order of Whale Bangers medal, given to World War II bombardiers who accidentally killed a whale instead of sinking a submarine. The museum also features a 19th-century cat-o'-nine-tails, and a detailed description of how flogging was used aboard Navy ships to punish "even the smallest breach of regulations."

"We're here to tell the story of the Navy, the good and the bad," Weber says. "You can look at an organization like the Navy, with almost 250 years of history, and things in the past that are sort of shocking to us, like flogging, that we moved past."

Visitors to the Marine Corps museum, meanwhile, enter via the Leatherneck Gallery, which fills the building's circular atrium with military aircraft suspended from the ceiling and inspirational Marine quotes etched into the walls. Guests who navigate the exhibits will find that the typical displays and text are complemented by more immersive features, including life-size dioramas with plaster-cast figures. The Korean War exhibit helps re-create a frigid Toktong Pass encampment by blasting visitors with cold air.

With its current galleries only tracking Marine history until 1975, the Marine Corps museum also doesn't touch on recent controversies (Tailhook). But it does document some difficult aspects of the institution's history.

Sobering graphics list the Marine death tolls from the various conflicts covered. In the Vietnam exhibit, a service member's frivolous doodling is included among items commenting on the challenge of maintaining high morale. An exhibit set to open next year will touch on the Marine Corps' past failures to provide provisions to families of service personnel.

"I expected when I first came here that we would be this recruiting mouthpiece and (the Marine Corps leadership) would tell us how to do it," says Conner, a civilian who came to the museum as an intern in 2005. "Humorously, I have never been ordered to sanitize or do something more favorable for Marine Corps, but I have been yelled at to show more warts of things."

Not glossing over the realities of combat has been a point of emphasis. In producing a short film for the World War I exhibit that reenacted the Battle of Belleau Wood in France - shot in 2009 with 40 active-duty Marines in Bealeton, Virginia - the museum staff strove for a harrowing portrayal of the conflict without falling into gratuitous violence.

"War fighting is an ugly business, and there's no arguing that," says Chuck Girbovan, the Marine Corps museum's exhibit services chief. "But at the same time, to show that graphically is not the point because it will turn people off to the story itself."

Both the Navy and Marine Corps museums (which will be joined next summer by the new National Museum of the U.S. Army in Fort Belvoir, Virginia) embrace evolution. Girbovan estimates that only 10 percent of the Marine Corps museum's items are on display at a given time, with the rest stored in various locations across Quantico. The Navy museum keeps a sizable surplus of artifacts at a warehouse in Richmond. As vessels are decommissioned and veterans and their families donate items, the collections grow.

The two museums also have made efforts to better reflect diversity, including the ongoing challenges. The Marine Corps museum held inclusivity panels several years ago that led to increased representation of women and minorities in the exhibits. The Navy museum has published three brochures - about women, African Americans, and Native Americans and Alaskan natives - that attempt to address discrimination. The literature notes that African Americans and women both make up 17 percent of the Navy's enlisted ranks today - numbers that illustrate progress while showing there's more work to be done. Going forward, Weber has plans to better incorporate such conversations - along with a dialogue around the controversial "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that was in place from 1994 until 2011 - in the exhibits themselves.

"I feel like it's important to tell those stories," Weber says. "But it's also informative to know that we've moved past them, and how we did that."

 

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