Museums Look Into the Future of Military History

Stan Richins of Yuba City, Calif., sits in a gun seat, one of the Navy Museum's exhibits.
Stan Richins of Yuba City, Calif., sits in a gun seat, one of the Navy Museum's exhibits. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

The gray paint is chipped on the World War II anti-aircraft gun. The finish is worn on some of the display cases. The crude video and interactive features date to the 1980s.

The exhibits at the National Museum of the United States Navy are housed in a century-old gun factory at the Washington Navy Yard, and many seem as dated as Adm. George Dewey's faded hat and gold-buttoned dress coat in a case on a wall.

But drive 35 miles south to the National Museum of the Marine Corps. There, visitors are immersed in the snowy chill of combat in Korea; the humidity of a grimy outpost in Vietnam; and the tension of a landing boat at Iwo Jima, complete with the feel of waves slapping the bottom and bullets pinging off the hull.

With the start of the summer tourist season, the two facilities are examples of how, in the competition for the public's leisure hours, even the nation's military museums are called on to entertain. And while one institution is abreast of the times, the other seems becalmed in the past.

"You can get whiz-bang at your desktop, so you come to expect it," said Lin Ezell, director of the Marine Corps museum in Quantico. "It's what, for better or worse, this generation of Americans expects when they go out for a good time. They expect to be entertained."

Across the country, experts say, scores of military and history museums are struggling to compete in a world where they must compete as attractions with the latest commercial amusement or theme park.

"Museum professionals no longer think of 'attraction' as a dirty word," Ezell said. "The amusement parks, the Disneys, the Epcots have taken this to a high level of art and science. . . . Now we can very easily use what works and not worry about" what doesn't.

There are about 90 military museums nationwide, according to the American Association of Museums. Those that have changed with the times are enjoying robust visitation.

Since it opened in fall 2006, the $90 million Marine Corps museum has had 800,000 visitors, including 548,875 last year, its first full year in business.

The vast National Museum of the United States Air Force, outside Dayton, Ohio, which continues to undergo expansion, updates and changes in focus, has had annual attendance go from 800,000 people 10 years ago to 1.2 million. "We must be doing something right," senior curator Terry Aitken said.

The museum director, retired Maj. Gen. Charles D. Metcalf, said his visitors are "hungry for history. . . . And that's what we are feeding them."

The Army, which has 24 museums across the country, has been planning and raising money for a flagship national museum at Fort Belvoir.

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