The young Marine Corps museum has success and grand plans

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; R06

The four-year-old National Museum of the Marine Corps in Prince William County had its 2 millionth visitor in late August.

It opened three new galleries in June to tell the history of the Marine Corps from its founding in 1775 through World War I, augmenting sections that documented military action through the Vietnam War.

And on the drawing boards are 80,000 more square feet to bring the story up to the present day.

Part of the success, and the bravery to mount a $105 million fundraising campaign in a shaky economy, comes from how the museum has branded itself. "Our museum is an American history museum, and American history in Northern Virginia and the Washington region is alive and of continued interest," says Lin Ezell, the museum's director.

Its records show that 60 percent of the people who visit in the summer are civilians. In the rest of the year, service members and veterans represent 60 percent. The 2 millionth visitor was a Fairfax County public school administrator, there with her two grandsons.

"After the museum opened we had a postmortem, and we learned 86 things and applied as many of those that we could," says Ezell, who worked for 21 years at the National Air and Space Museum. One lesson was that "people like being transported to another place. It is not inexpensive to do so. It takes a real commitment."

The new galleries cover the early history and the Civil War, global expeditions in the 19th century and World War I. In the World War I gallery, the Battle of Belleau Wood unfolds. The designers use 3-D projections and strong narratives for a learning experience about a turning point that most people don't hear about in school. The battle was fought in June 1918 over 26 days, with U.S. forces spearheaded by Marines. Belleau Wood is the origin of a famous Marine quote: When a French officer told the Marines to back off, Capt. Lloyd Williams said, "Retreat? Hell, we just got here." There were heavy U.S. casualties, but the Germans were defeated.

"It is up close, personal and gripping," Ezell says.

Besides the Belleau Wood exhibit, the new galleries include 250 new artifacts -- armored vehicles, uniforms, airplanes and 12 life-size statues of Marines, for which real enlisted men and women were models. At one point the visitor can select from a menu of four popular marches and hear the Marine Corps Band (dubbed "the President's Own") play them.

The new experiences cost $12 million. "These three galleries have a shine to them. It was the same team that worked with the original displays, but now they were working with what our audiences wanted. And the technology and capability had changed in four years," Ezell says.

The Marine museum has an annual budget of $10 million, and the funds for the 80,000-square-foot expansion are being raised separately by the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. The project, which could start in late 2012, would include the addition of a large-screen theater and classrooms.

Ezell enjoys walking through the museum, observing visitors and evaluating how they fit into the statistical picture. Some moments are especially poignant. "About six months ago, I saw a young couple in their late 30s or early 40s. They had just returned from Arlington Cemetery, where they had buried their son. And they told me they came here to figure out why he did what he did. They said they came here for answers and said they believed they knew more than they did before."

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