National World War II Museum has new pavilion opening in January
NEW ORLEANS — Gordon “Nick” Mueller admits neither he nor historian Stephen Ambrose imagined that what they began in 1990 would become the National World War II Museum of today.
This makes the museum’s plans even more remarkable.
When U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center opens in January, the gleaming, four-story structure will stand in stark visual contrast to the old warehouse building a block away that still houses the original tribute to the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France. With the girders of even more expansion rising between the two buildings, the latest addition bears testimony to how the vision for the museum is evolving.
By the time all that is on the drawing board becomes reality, the facility will have morphed beyond what most people think of when they hear the word “museum.”
Construction on the Campaigns of Courage Pavilion has begun. Foundation pilings for the Liberation Pavilion, which will focus on how the war shaped the world, have been driven. These will include high-tech features more in line with Disney than the Smithsonian, and the museum ultimately will even have its own hotel.
“We’ve never met a great idea we didn’t reach for,” said Bob Farnsworth, the museum’s senior vice president of capital projects.
That was true of the original idea for a National D-Day Museum, which Ambrose proposed to be built on donated land along Lake Pontchartrain to honor Andrew Higgins, the New Orleans businessman who built the landing boats that brought troops ashore. The need to place it closer to tourists brought the museum to its current location. World War II veterans like U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska pushed organizers to expand its focus, even before it opened under its original name on June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of D-Day.
“We had a few thoughts beforehand about expanding it to World War II or even changing the name to World War II before we opened, but I had the board so focused at that point on D-Day and getting open, I didn’t want to throw a monkey wrench into the gears by saying we were going to change our name and change our mission when we were trying to focus on getting open,” Mueller said. “But (Stevens) said, ‘Do it all and I’ll help in Congress.’”
The museum has, indeed, not lacked for funding, whether from federal, state government or private sources. Boeing donated $15 million to make its name part of the Freedom Pavilion. Movie-theater magnate Theodore Solomon and his family donated $5.5 million to build the Solomon Victory Theater, which houses the popular “Beyond All Boundaries” multi-media show about the war.
The key word in all of this is “popular.” The museum and its other features — the Stage Door Canteen, with its USO-style stage shows, and the American Sector Restaurant — have had a steady stream of patrons.
“We didn’t just build and hope they came,” Farnsworth said. “We performed some of the most in-depth market studies multiple times. We’ve gone out and found the best people to do that. What we’ve done so far has proven out, that the marketing studies that we have completed — and we want to be slightly on the conservative side — are slightly on the conservative side because we keep exceeding the expectations and projections that we’re setting for ourselves.
“We’re at about 400,000 visitations, not counting live entertainment, not counting restaurant activity. Depending somewhat on the growth of tourism in the city, we’re going to be somewhat under 600,000 upon full build-out.”
When “Beyond All Boundaries” opened in 2009, the museum crossed a threshold from mostly static or slightly interactive displays to a decidedly 21st century approach to engaging visitors. The Freedom Pavilion will use a giant LED screen, interactive looks looks inside iconic World War II aircraft and a re-creation of what it was like to be part of a submarine attack. But the digital emphasis will extend to the start of the museum experience.
Instead of tickets, visitors will be given dog tags that hold a computer chip containing the oral history of a World War II veteran. Visitors will be directed to a mock train that recreates the experience military personnel had of being transported to training bases, and the dog tag will activate a computer screen that will introduce the veteran to the visitor.
When the Campaigns of Courage Pavilion opens in 2014, providing accounts of the war in Asia and Europe, the dog tags will link the visitor to more of the veteran’s stories. At some exhibits, visitors can use the dog tag to indicate interest in that subject, and the museum will email more information.
“We don’t think of our visitors as one-time customers to the museum,” Mueller said. “We find them as a group of people that we help to get interested in the history of World War II and what America did, and we want to continue to have a relationship with them beyond their museum experience, so they’re always kind of connected to us through those dog tags.”
That level of sophistication is where the museum needs to go, especially to continue to attract those generations removed from World War II veterans, Mueller said.
The museum has concentrated on making sure the technology is a tool, not an end in itself.
“For us the story is everything — personalizing that story so people relate this not just to broad strategy but to human beings who were involved in the conflict,” Mueller said. “We don’t want technology to be the story. We want to use advances in technology to help make it a more personal and more meaningful experience so people will be curious about what happened in World War II, and go out and read books and try to understand more because they’ve been personally engaged, and technology can help you do that.”
“It’s not just about the strategies and the battlefields. It’s the people and the personal stories. Those are going to be valid for all times.”
Though the need to connect with the city’s tourists dictated the museum’s location, that equation has been turned on its head.
So many of its visitors come to New Orleans primarily for the museum, a hotel specifically to accommodate them is being contemplated, Farnsworth said.
That also recognizes the fact that, with its expansions, the museum is becoming more than a one-day experience.
Farnsworth said the organization has researched if another museum has built a hotel so the World War II Museum can learn from its experience. None has been found. That doesn’t appear to bother the leadership.
“If we continue to execute the way we did with ‘Beyond All Boundaries,’ our boundaries are way out there,” Mueller said.