New Orleans museum salutes the Greatest Generation


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 profound ways. 

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.

The inspiration 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.

Being a 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, Germany.

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. 

Unlike other 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 credibility.   

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 Pacific.

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 Orleans.

Designated by 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. 

"We're applying 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." 

That's something 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. 

The museum's 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 visits.

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].

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