The Chieftain's Hatch Museum Review: National WW2 Museum

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Most times when one goes to a new city, you only know about a museum either through reputation, or because you went looking in the guide book for things to do. Not so much the case here, though. As soon as you land at Louis Armstrong Airport, you see a number of advertisements for the National WW2 Museum. As you ride along the freeway to the city center, you will see the occasional billboard advertising it as well. Indeed, it seems to be better advertised than the French Quarter.

One of the first things to understand about this place is that though it is the National WW2 Museum, and is effectively chartered by Congress, it’s actually a private enterprise set up by Stephen Ambrose and “Nick” Mueller. Apparently is all started out many moons ago when Mr Ambrose was asked by Ike to write his biography. During the chat, Eisenhower mentioned Mr Higgins who, he said, won the war for the US: Without the Higgins Boats, it would have been an entirely different war. Well, fast forward a ways, and over a couple of pints down the local watering hole, they decided to set up a small museums for Mr Higgins. However, since they couldn’t really have a viable museum just for the man and the boat, they incorporated the Normandy landings into it, making the D-Day museum. Then it expanded a bit more to include the Pacific theatre, and finally, Congress decided to let them be the National museum, gave ‘em a few dollars for infrastructure, and here we are today.

Although some infrastructure funding did come from the Federal and State governments, the operational costs, and there are a lot of them given the 300 paid staff amongst everything else, come through revenues from ticket sales, concessions, and merchandising. Whatever their CFO is doing, though, they seem to be doing well at it. The museum is expanding hugely. The photograph above shows the Freedom Pavillion Boeing Center currently slated to open in November of this year. This building is going to focus on the aircraft, and will have a B-17, B-25, SBD, TBM, F4U and P-51 all hanging from the ceiling. When you walk in the door of the main entrance, there’s a little model showing what it’s all going to look like in the end.

The general gist of it is that the first building, the main core of the museum, was a converted 1880s brewery, to which the Louisiana Pavillion (the entrance/show floor) was added back in 2000. The area across the street to include the theatre and the American Sector restaurant was 2009. Next to it will go the Boeing Center, and next to that will be the Campaigns Pavillion, which will cover both the European and Pacific campaigns on two floors. Going from there will be the Liberations pavilion, covering the end of the war and its effects. If that’s not enough, they’re also putting in a four-story parking structure. Anyway, that’s the future. Suffice to say, if you’ve not been there in a while, it’s probably changed. And there’s plenty more coming, so if you can only hit New Orleans once, you might want to wait a bit.

As mentioned, this museum requires revenue as the operating costs are not provided by the government. So, tickets must be purchased, in the Louisiana Pavillion (That’s the big glass structure in the first picture, by the way).

The pavillion contains a number of larger exhibits. Immediately closest to the window are the vehicles, they get rotated in and out from the warehouse every now and then: When I was there, the theme was ‘beginning of the war’, hence the halftrack and M3. Look ‘up’, and there are more airplanes hanging from the ceiling. The C-47 is airworthy, it was flown to New Orleans to be included into the exhibits.

The Dauntless, however, is not so airworthy. Apparently the aircraft was a survivor of Guadalcanal, but somehow found itself withdrawn from front-line service to be a training aircraft on one of the two paddle-wheel aircraft carriers which puttered around on Lake Michigan. (Fascinating designs, if you’re not aware of them). At some stage, the aircraft somehow ended up at the bottom of the lake, it was eventually dragged out and cosmetically restored.

One doesn’t actually have to spend very long in this pavillion, but there are two ‘special’ exhibits which rotate in the rooms at the back to have a look at. You may be as well of waiting until the end, however, and hitting those special exhibit rooms after seeing the rest of the museum. So, wander back downstairs, and into the old brewery. It’s a bit of a maze if you were to follow the route on the map, but it’s easy to navigate.

The journey starts at the beginning of WWII, with this rather pointed display showing just how powerful the US military was when things kicked off. The entire museum trip, hallways and display rooms, is rather dark, and flash photography is not permitted. There is also much use of the dramatic choral music in the background, the sort of thing one hears when sitting inside a planetarium looking at stars.

Though it may have originally been a museum premised around Mr Higgins, there is only the one room based upon  the Higgins story (This model shows the four major types of vessel built by Higgins). In fairness, it actually does do a fairly good job of telling it, however, so it would seem that the original thought of having to incorporate Normandy in order to create a worthwhile idea was quite correct.

The circulatory nature of the route one takes certainly gives the impression of the museum being quite sizeable.  Indeed, one changes level and sides of the building a couple of times. They make good use of the space that they have as well, as this Waco indicates. (I got special permission for the flash, by the way). The hallway it’s in is very small, but it still displays what it wants quite well.

The standard form of exhibits as in most modern American musea can be found in the various rooms, with weapons and uniforms mounted in well-lit areas behind large glass (as  opposed to the older form of being displayed in smaller wardrobe-sized glass cases). One doesn’t often see Johnson rifles, apparently they were quite popular with US Marine paratroopers. (Paramarines?)

The idea behind the museum, however, isn’t so much to show the artifacts, it’s to tell stories and to try to put events in context. As a result, there are a large number of audio booths with various buttons to push in order to listen to oral histories. Most are, of course, American, but the odd commentary from the German side can be heard. However, there is little planned influence of non-Americans in the museum (Though a Bf-109 and Spitfire are planned for display, at least). Ultimately, they only have so much room, and want to focus on the American side as America’s National WWII museum. I’m not personally convinced that’s the best way to go about it, but it’s not as if anyone asked my opinion: It may have been a world war, but I would rather not have to travel around the world in order to get the full experience to learn about it from all sides, as it were.

On the plus side, as a modern, and apparently well-funded museum, one really cannot fault the quality of the exhibits that they did choose to display. They heavily leverage technology, such as the moving map animation shown above in the Normandy beaches room. There are a number of these things scattered around. I particularly liked the map of the Pacific with buttons at the bottom which one could press to identify amphibious landings. There are some 100 buttons, and you can spend a minute trying to find the little light which lights up where you least expect it. At the same time a monitor gives a very brief overview of the assault. Very nice.

Yes, it’s an Enigma machine. They do seem to be able to get an interesting variety of significant artifacts. Indeed, they are receiving so many from donations that they’re actually starting to direct them  elsewhere… There’s only so many Arisaka rifles that a museum needs.

Once you’re done with the main museum, you can wander across the road for lunch at the American Sector. That’s a full-service restaurant, the menu’s available on the website. There is also a period Malt Shop in the old brewery building as well, next to the rather large gift shop. Across the perpendicular road is the restoration pavillion. It’s not open to the self-guided public, but the entire facade is glass, so you can see what’s under restoration. At the time I visited, a PT boat was in the shop, exposed to the world. Unfortunately, the camera didn’t take the photo well, but it’s a very nice thing to see. Usually a museum’s restoration facilities are hidden way in the back and one never gets to see them. If memory serves, it is actually possible to get a guided tour of the facility, but you need to be at a certain place at a certain time to avail of the opportunity.

The last thing to see, and it’s heavily advertised, is “Beyond all Boundaries”. It’s advertised as a “4D Experience,” and I guess it’s as good a description as any. You can’t really call it a movie or film, though it’s a large portion of it. It’s also not massively informative, people who have at least an interest in the conflict probably know most of what’s shown anyway. I suspect that the target audience is the people who in the past had taken no particular interest at all in the war, and I get the feeling the goal was to try to get across the sheer sense of scale and endeavor of the war (It’s also heavily patriotic, if that’s your thing). After all, those of us who didn’t live through it probably don’t have much of a frame of reference, I think it’s an attempt to try to put what was in effect total war into perspective for us. In this, I think it would succeed. Not much tank, I’m afraid, but the theatre does shake when the PzKpfw VI rolls by… Anyway, the museum’s website (one of the better ones, it must be said) has an entire section devoted to it, it’ll tell you about as much as I can. I will say that regardless of what one may expect from the content, the execution of it is quite probably the best I’ve ever seen. I’d almost kill to get some behind-the-scenes knowledge. The tickets for this can be purchased either separately from the museum access itself, or in a combination pack. This is probably a good thing, as the full pack together will set you back $24. (Of course, if you’ve just flown all the way to New Orleans to see the museum, that’s just chump change). As I say, the experience doesn’t really teach you anything new, so if you’ve got more of a serious historical interest, you can probably skip it without missing much, especially f you’re short on time. However, if you’re just a general tourist, have a bit of time to kill, or have your family with you (I can just imagine 13-16 year-olds thinking it’s the best thing ever) it’s worth checking out.

So that’s the rough overview of the facility. The organization takes its role in education very seriously, to the point that they have a Director of Education, and conducts a number of educational programs to include distance learning. A nice touch is that they also use wargames as an educational tool, they basically have a wargaming meeting every week which takes place on the main hall floor. More than that, they also have a wargaming convention, The Heat of Battle, which takes place over a full weekend. Lots of wargames surrounded by the artifacts of war, it’s a rather nice thought.

The level of expansion the museum is undertaking is staggering, and they’re looking at opening a new pavillion every year. By that reckoning, I really want to go back in late 2014 to see the final product. Of course, the downside is that if you’re planning on making a special trip to New Orleans to see the museum, you may want to hold off on that for a couple of years. But hey, who  needs an excuse to go to Mardi Gras?  And while you’re there….

Just a word of thanks, too, to Mr Tom Czekanski, who was good enough to keep me company and fill me in on a lot of the background of the museum and the exhibits.

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