10 best military museums that bring battles to life
Despite their dramatic topic, military museums used to be dry stuffy collections, mainly appealing to soldiers and scholars. But the galleries have grown up, capturing the interest of young visitors with theme-park thrills and dynamic displays, says Dr. Charles H. Cureton, chief of the museums division at the Center of Military History in Fort McNair in Washington. “There’s been a realization that they have to be able communicate with a larger audience. They’re presenting the human story, the soldier experience,” he says. In honor of Veteran’s Days he shares some favorite sites with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
National Infantry Museum
Fort Benning, Ga.
Infantry soldiers face a formidable challenge in battle, a task dramatically portrayed in the “Last 100 Yards” exhibit at this new, $100 million museum, which was largely privately funded. “You get a little bit of the drama of the attack, of that tension, the speed, the confusion, the noise, it takes you in time from the storming of redout Number 10 at the Siege of Yorktown, to the war in Iraq,” Cureton says. Visitors can also try out combat and rifle range simulators. 706-685-5800; nationalinfantrymuseum.org
Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum and the U.S. Army Field Artillery Museum
Fort Sill, Okla.
This post, which once stood on the American frontier, has the largest collection of Native American material in the Army’s museum system. “You can stand on the parade field and see the post as it was in the 1870s,” Cureton says. Nearby, the field artillery museum does an artful job of displaying military technology, he says. 580-442-5123; fortsillmuseum.com
National Museum of the Marine Corps
The Corps is celebrated in this modern immersive museum, where visitors can shoulder a backpack and experience what it’s like to have a drill sergeant yelling in their ear. “You come into the building through very elaborate vignette scene, landing in the Pacific at Tarawa in a helicopter. And the way those scenes are composed is like a three-dimensional painting,” Cureton says. 877-635-1775; usmcmuseum.com
National Museum of the United States Air Force
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio
Cureton calls this collection one of the country’s most extraordinary museums. “It’s up there with the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, but its focus is entirely on military aircraft.” Visitors can also see enemy planes from Germany and the Soviet Union. 937-255-3286; nationalmuseum.af.mil
U.S. Army Aviation Museum
Fort Rucker, Ala.
Instead of static displays of aircraft, this museum creates life-size dioramas to capture the drama of army aviation. “It’s not aircraft parked wingtip to wingtip. You see a museum that’s trying to reach that larger audience,” Cureton says. “You have a helicopter coming in for a landing in Vietnam. You have an observation point set up in the snow.” 334-598-2508; armyaviationmuseum.org
National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial
Kansas City, Mo.
What began as a World War I tribute evolved as loved ones and soldiers brought mementos to the site. “It started as a repository and it developed a museum and it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s a real treat to see,” Cureton says. 816-888-8100; theworldwar.org
National World War II Museum
While this museum has no direct military affiliation, it does a masterful job interpreting the magnitude of World War II. Visitors line up for films narrated by Tom Hanks and produced by Steven Spielberg, while elsewhere exhibits interpret the conflict through the eyes of the participants. “It reaches you emotionally. You kind of lose track of where you are,” Cureton says. 504-528-1944; nationalww2museum.org
First Division Museum at Cantigny
Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick served with the First Division during World War I and later endowed this museum located on his family’s former country estate. “It’s exceptionally well done,” observes Cureton. Displays cover the division’s history and include an outdoor collection called Tank Park. 630-260-8185; firstdivisionmuseum.org
U.S. Naval Academy Museum
This historic site pays tribute to U.S. Naval history from the Revolution to modern conflicts with multimedia exhibits. It also displays more than 70 ship models from the 17th and 18th centuries, the largest collection in North America. “It’s a marvelous collection and a wonderful story told,” Cureton says. “410-293-2108; usna.edu/Museum/exhibits/index.php
National Naval Aviation Museum
The home of the Blue Angels celebrates the famed squadron in exhibits and films. “You walk into these scenes and the aircraft themselves are pretty extraordinary pieces.” Cureton says. The museum also sponsors aviation immersion programs offering theme-park like thrills on simulators and virtual reality programs. 850-452-3604; navalaviationmuseum.org
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Despite their dramatic topic, military museums used to be dry stuffy collections, mainly appealing to soldiers and scholars. But the galleries have grown up, capturing the interest of young visitors with theme-park thrills and dynamic displays, says Dr. Charles H. Cureton, chief of the museums division at the Center of Military History in Fort McNair […]Read More >>