Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The National World War II Museum

The World War II Museum opened as The D-Day Museum in New Orleans on June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of D-Day. It was the brainchild of Dr. Stephen Ambrose (1936 – 2002), a historian at the University of New Orleans and biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Besides Dr. Ambrose, there was another New Orleans connection that made New Orleans the logical spot for the museum. The Higgins landing craft, designed by Andrew Jackson Higgins, based on boats made for operating in the swamps and marshes of Louisiana, was the boat that made D-Day possible. As Eisenhower himself said,
Andrew Higgins ... is the man who won the war for us. ... If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different. 
The original museum had displays that showed the buildup to the war, the effect of the war on the home front, and the planning and execution of D-Day. There are mini-theaters throughout the museum that show short documentaries on various aspects of the war as well as oral histories from soldiers and people who worked on the home front. There's a map with lighted displays that show timelines of the invasion.  There is a Higgins boat and other military equipment on display in the lobby, which also hosts lectures and programs.

A second exhibit, describing the war in the Pacific, opened a few years after the first, highlighting the many D-Days of the war across the Pacific, which required amphibious landings on islands using the Higgins craft.  It also has a display of propaganda used by the Allies and the Axis. Even the newspaper headlines displayed throughout the exhibit use the terms "Japs" and sometimes "Nips" in headlines.  

In 2004, Congress designated the museum as The National World War II Museum .

My husband and I first visited the museum shortly after it opened, in August of 2000, and then took my brother Frank there for a visit in 2001. We also went again when the Pacific exhibit opened. After that, we did not visit again until last week. When the Beyond All Boundaries multi-media presentation opened on November 6, 2010, I realized I wanted to see the museum again. John suggested we wait until this month, when we would be in New Orleans for his high school reunion anyway and have most of Saturday free. 

The museum sits on one and a half city blocks on Magazine Street and what used to be Howard Dr but has been renamed Andrew J. Higgins Dr. It sits across from the old Civil War Museum, which I have never visited. It's not far from the French Quarter, and close to the Superdome and New Orleans Arena. We could have walked to it from our hotel if it had not been for my still healing foot.

The museum is a must-see if you visit New Orleans, but I have some reservations about taking young children there. I'd say it's worthwhile for those 10 years old and up, depending on your child, but it's a war museum. It depicts war as realistically as it can. Some of the exhibits are quite graphic and disturbing. One of the sections talks about the brutality of war and shows two black and white photos of severed heads, one mounted on a tank and one hanging in a tree. Since the exhibits are hung almost floor to ceiling, not just adult eye level, these were about waist high for me, and I apparently overlooked them on my first three visits, but they would be at eye level for a young child.  There are also pictures of concentration camp survivors, the dead from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and pictures of the dead and wounded from the D-Day and other invasions. 

The multi-media presentation, Beyond All Boundaries, gives a good overview of the war, but again, it contains some disturbing images and bursts of loud sound and flashes of light that could be scary to a young child. I think the intent of Beyond All Boundaries was to give as realistic a view as possible of what the war was like. Instead it made me realize the enormous gulf that exists between those who experienced combat and those of us who have not.

Admission for World War II veterans is free. I was surprised to find out from the museum website that there are 1.7 million WWII veterans still alive. A sixteen year old who lied about his age and enlisted just before the war ended, would be about 82 or 83 today. When the museum opened, there were several WWII veterans who volunteered at the museum, and we did see one visiting the museum the day we were there. I wonder how many veterans would prefer not to be reminded. I doubt my dad would have gone to such a museum if it had been in existence when he was alive.

It took us about four hours to go through the museum and see Beyond All Boundaries. You could take less time, but you could also take more. We skipped all of the oral histories, having seen them before.

Overall, I'd say see it if you can. Just be cautious about bringing young children.

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