As you finish purchasing your ticket, you hear the distant tumble of tens of letters and numbers rumbling on a nearby schedule board, reminiscent of a time long passed. A green Union Pacific train car sits in the station, awaiting passengers arriving to the station.
Visitors to New Orlean's WWII Museum are ushered aboard the passenger train, embarking on their journey through the history and stories of WWII. Once seated, the sounds of the train station dissipate as the train whistle blows. The chug of the train jolts passengers as the train pulls forward. You feel the rumble of the tracks radiate through your seat as you watch the American countryside pass by through the train’s windows. The voice of a young solider explains that the start of today’s journey is not that different from those of young soldiers, heading off to war.
One could easily spend the day exploring this vast and engaging museum. On a recent trip, I only had a few hours to become absorbed in one of the most important historical events of the modern world. As a museum-lover, I marveled at the seamless integration of multimedia technology throughout the exhibits, helping history come alive in the eyes and hands of visitors, young and old alike. The World War II museum takes museum education to a whole new level. Exhibits mix visual, auditory, tactile, and digital elements in order to immerse visitors in history’s memories.
The WWII Museum takes visitors back in time,
using today’s technology to fuel yesterday’s media.
As visitor’s walk through an exhibit highlighting the industrial contributions of America’s factories and civil workers, visitors can join the assembly line to drill rivets on aircraft or weld Army jeeps. When you look through the welder’s mask, you see the dynamic glow of the welder’s torch busy welding components together.
Strolling through a museum mock-up of a typical home on the American home front, visitors can open kitchen drawers and cabinets in order to better understand how food rationing affected families. A stop in the home’s meager living room provides an opportunity to sit down and catch up on war news or one of President Roosevelt’s “fire side chats” via the family radio.
Every creative element is used to help visitors understand the events of WWII. The snow-covered path of a French forest, frozen in a European winter, takes visitors through the Battle of the Bulge. Snow covered trees provide a canopy as visitors explore collected artifacts. Footage from the battle is projected onto wall-length screens scattered amongst the trees. At one moment, the sounds of men’s voices narrating their experiences turns to the sound of gun fire as lights flicker, illustrating the ensuing battle. While appropriate for general audiences, several exhibits contain a warning that the use of visual and auditory elements may elicit strong memories or trigger vivid reactions in veterans.
The museum offers an opportunity to fully immerse yourself in the final mission of the USS Tang. Each visitor is assigned the role of a specific veteran as well as the duties associated with his duty station. As the submarine embarks on its treacherous voyage, participants must listen for and follow the captain’s orders, broadcast over the submarine’s overhead speaker. Visitors must quickly make the mechanical changes ordered by the captain. A 360-degree video screen above illustrates the importance of these station changes as the events of maritime warfare commence on the waters of the Pacific. At its conclusion, visitors learn the tragic fate of their mission and assigned crewman.
Today’s museums are charged with not only preserving the contents within its walls, but illustrating the historical narrative of the content put on display. Possibly, the ultimate measure of their success is for a visitor to meaningfully and deeply connect with the subject matter being presented. In today’s world, museums must compete with online resources, engaging educational apps, and ever-increasing entertainment media. It’s one thing to see the poster of Rosie the Riveter or read about women joining the industrial workforce in a book. But, it is quite another experience entirely to become a riveter yourself through the interactive nature of today’s museums.
Without a doubt, the World War II Museum fulfills this mission. While yesterday’s media and technology may appear to be lost to the past, today’s technology breathes live into these devices. An army of newspapers, telegrams, radios, scratchy audio recordings, black-and-white film recordings, vehicles, locomotives, submarines, machinist tools, levers and knobs all come to life, charged with the task of sharing yesterday’s history with future generations.