It's become something of a cliche to call
those who served in World War II members of the Greatest
Generation, although their dedication and courage remain an
inspiration. A visit to the National World War II Museum, a
sprawling facility in New Orleans' Warehouse District that was
largely undamaged by Hurricane Katrina, makes the point in many
For those with an
interest in World War II, New Orleans is an A-list destination,
although many are unaware of that fact. Simply put, this is the
best museum of contemporary history I have ever visited. A mix of
historical photography, graphic arts and interpretive and
interactive displays, the museum provides a three-dimensional view
of the times and events that marked the war.
for homeporting the National World War II Museum here came from New
Orleans' native and renowned historian, Stephen Ambrose. It seems
the flat-bottomed Higgins landing craft used along Normandy's
beaches on D-Day were manufactured in the Crescent City.
The museum opened
in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum, but the invasion of Normandy
was only one part of a much larger story. Telling that story in the
broadest of terms involved not only a comprehensive look at the
many battles fought but also the many ways the war impacted the
nation, politically, economically and socially.
I'd been told
when planning my time in New Orleans to leave at least three hours
for the museum. As it turned out, three hours proved less time than
I would have liked, making it necessary to rush through the war's
finale to make an afternoon appointment. I left with tears in my
eyes, gratitude in my heart and a better understanding of the
complexity of this most complex and brutal of wars.
university-educated historian, I thought I was quite familiar with
the forces at work. My father and uncles had all served, with one
uncle in the army liberating the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau,
I found myself
stunned by the impact of the exhibits, a mix of vintage aircraft
and other vehicles, interactive displays, invaluable artifacts,
video interviews, electric maps and music woven seamlessly into a
flowing narrative and beautifully mounted displays. What was
equally amazing was that all the interactive components worked. No
"Temporarily Out of Order" signs here.
history museums with either static displays or limited scope, this
one effectively traces the causes and impact of the war in a series
of meandering galleries that follow a logical, sequential path
through the war years. And while the story line follows the
American experience of the war, it provides an in-depth,
historically insightful perspective that adds to the museum's
A visit also
includes two films presented in the Malcolm Forbes Theater: an
Academy Award-nominated documentary on the war in Europe called
"D-Day Remembered," and "Price for Peace," about the war in the
There are also
exhibits and educational programming.
The vintage Jeeps
and aircraft on display in the museum's main entry hall include a
massive C-47 and a Higgins landing craft, part of an ultimate
collection of restored military hardware that is part of the
museum's expansion. Planned before Katrina struck, it was assumed
immediately after the hurricane that the expansion of the museum
would not likely move forward.
"The museum is
about the American spirit, and we thought that we had to display
that same spirit in moving forward and responding to the tough
times New Orleans was facing after Katrina," said Gordon Mueller,
the museum's president.
"The board has
remained committed to the rebirth of the city. Moving forward with
our expansion is part of that rebirth."
The first phase
of that $300 million expansion has just been completed, with the
dedication of the Discovery Hall, an educational facility for kids.
When the expansion is completed, in 2010 at the earliest, the
museum will have a six-acre campus. Eight new structures will add
245,000 square feet of exhibition space in pavilions linked by the
318-foot high Canopy of Peace, which is destined to identify the
museum and provide the city with a distinctive new landmark.
The new pavilions
will include an advanced-format "4-D" theater with a film that
boasts Tom Hanks as executive producer and a restaurant with a USO
theme plus a research and conference center in downtown New
Congress as the nation's official World War II museum, that honor
adds not only to its importance but hopefully positions it well for
raising the funds to complete the expansion.
the most advanced, immersive technology into the expansion," said
Bob Farnsworth, vice president of capital programs, who is
spearheading the fundraising campaign. "We've had some very
intelligent people working on this, and we think the results are
going to be exceptional. It will be an emotionally immersive
journey through World War II."
the museum already offers, with the expansion aiming at tripling or
quadrupling pre-hurricane annual visitor counts of 250,000. At a
time when some are still wondering whether New Orleans is yet worth
the visit, the National World War II Museum already provides a
resounding yes, independent of the city's many better-known
attractions. I'd call it a must-see for anyone with an interest in
the detail and scope of World War II.
bookstore/gift shop is well stocked, providing unique gifts and
meaningful souvenirs; leave time for browsing. There is also a
coffee shop that, considering the scope of the museum, makes a
perfect midday break between morning and afternoon
To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].