This final November of the war-scarred 20th century, a month that includes both Veterans Day and Thanksgiving, seems an appropriate time to consider again a proposal discussed during the debate about the World War II Memorial on the Mall.
One major objection to the original concept for the World War II Memorial in 1996 and 1997 was its elaborate program and the misfit between the program and the site. The agenda called for not only a symbolic memorial occupying the Mall just west of 17th Street, but also about 70,000 square feet of interior exhibition space.
Such a museum would have been larger than the Freer Gallery, at an ill-suited location.
Members of the American Battle Monuments Commission, aging veterans concerned about fading knowledge and comprehension of the more recent and larger world war, sought to build more than just a commemorative symbol of this extraordinary period. They also wanted to build something that would tell the story to succeeding generations.
The commission's aspirations were laudable, but achieving them in that location made little sense. Nevertheless, the powers that be were committed to building the memorial on the already-dedicated Rainbow Pool site.
Thus these two distinct ideas--one a memorial integrated into the National Mall landscape, the other an educational facility--needed to be separated. Each had unique goals and requirements.
Ultimately, that occurred.
Architect Friedrich St. Florian's competition- winning design, based on the original program, was an immense, sunken plaza ringed by 50 tall columns and bracketed with berms housing exhibition and assembly spaces. It was rejected by the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission.
The World War II Memorial Commission agreed to change the program and eliminate the educational spaces. With the project dramatically pared down, St. Florian created a new design for the memorial, primarily a reconfiguration of the landscape. It has been approved, and the memorial's sponsors are raising construction money.
But what happened to the idea of educating the public about World War II?
Clearly the Memorial Commission's effort has been focused on getting the memorial designed, approved and financed. Trying to create a World War II museum somewhere else at the same time would not have been feasible, given limited human and economic resources. Yet the idea should not be abandoned.
Why do we need such a facility?
The story of World War II is compelling and extraordinarily complex, spanning much more than just the war years, 1939 to 1945. Its origins are rooted in the political and economic history of the preceding decades. It involved unprecedented quantities of geography, peoples and cultures. It was arguably much more of a "world" war than World War I, and the extent of death and destruction surpassed all other conflicts.
The impact of the war on the United States is a key element of the story. The war ended the Depression of the 1930s and energized the U.S. economy. It changed social behavior and attitudes, motivated the invention of new technologies and transformed America's role internationally. These war-generated phenomena affected the lives of Americans for decades after the war.
Parts of the story are told at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. But only a facility dedicated entirely to the war's elaborate history and far-reaching consequences can do it justice.
A well-conceived World War II museum could analyze and cover in detail its geopolitical, military, economic, social and technological dimensions. It could exhibit in a comprehensible manner a broad range of fascinating, war-related artifacts, photographs, films, drawings and paintings, posters, radio broadcast recordings and documents. Recollections of military and civilian participants, in audio and video form, could add memorable personal dimensions.
Where should such a museum be located? The nation's capital is the logical place, somewhere near the monumental core, but not on the Mall.
The year 2000 is not too soon to begin seriously planning a World War II museum. Memories are fading, and we should capture them permanently before they disappear.
Roger Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.