War is dirty, messy, brutal and devastating for all involved, but it has always been an unfortunate part of life on this planet. Trying not to repeat those calamities is the goal of any good society. Fortunately, historians have become good at finding and preserving the artifacts that remain from those brutal conflicts in the hope that future generations don’t forget the lessons learned.
War museums and their curators have also become good at interpreting the events that took place and offering unique perspectives on those conflicts. There are many good war museums around the world, but here are five that will help visitors have an interesting and moving experience as they learn about the men and women who fought in some of America’s most significant wars.
National World War I Museum
Kansas City, Missouri
“The War to End All Wars” didn’t exactly do that, but its impact has been felt through the past 100 years. Though Americans tend to focus more on its successor, World War I, the first global conflict on the planet, has had a much greater impact elsewhere. The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, continues to tell that story.
The memorial began right after the war ended. In about 10 days in 1919, more than 83,000 people contributed to a fund and raised about $2.5 million, said Mike Vietti, director of marketing for the museum. The Liberty Memorial, later the National World War I Memorial, was built, and the artifacts collection began around the same time.
“The goal and the mission has been to tell the global story of what took place in World War I,” Vietti said. “When I say that, I mean the museum and memorial don’t focus solely on what happened in the United States. We truly tell the global story.”
The museum has the most comprehensive collection in the world, with artifacts from every participating nation. It endeavors to show the effects the war has had on modern life.
“The legacy and the impact of the Great War is very much alive with us on a daily basis for every single person on this planet,” Vietti said.
National World War II Museum
In 2000, Stephen Ambrose, author of “Band of Brothers,” and Nick Mueller, his colleague at the University of New Orleans, opened a D-Day museum to house Ambrose’s extensive collection of D-Day artifacts. It helped that Higgins Industries, maker of many types of landing craft used in the Normandy assault, was based in the same city. In 2004, Congress designated the institution the National World War II Museum.
The museum now has more than 250,000 artifacts and 10,000 oral histories in its collection, which it showcases in two primary exhibitions: “The Road to Berlin” and “The Road to Tokyo.” The two exhibits take visitors through the war chronologically. There is also an “Arsenal of Democracy” exhibit, which shows the work done on the homefront, and the Boeing Center, which shows tanks, trucks and planes, with skywalks for closer observation. This huge campus continues to grow all the time and is adding a new pavilion now.
“You’re gonna learn a lot more about not just the history but more of a reflective experience of ‘really, what does it mean?’” said Keith Darcey, public relations manager. “What’s the lasting legacy of World War II? Why is it still relevant 75 years later? That’s kind of what we hope people gain out of this.”
Museum of the American Revolution
Visitors to the Museum of the American Revolution will leave ready to take up their muskets and fight for liberty. The museum is new, having just opened in 2017. Visitors who think they know the story of the Revolution will be surprised by this museum, which goes into much more depth and drama. That it’s in Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, just adds to its revolutionary attitude.
“Our story isn’t the war; it’s the whole Revolution,” said curator Mark Turdo. “From 1760 to 1790 is the social, cultural and political changes. In the middle of that is the 8 1/2-year war.”
The gallery takes visitors through the Revolution chronologically, telling stories through artifacts and vignettes. It gives visitors insights into the experiences of many different people affected through all ages and walks of life.
“That’s one of those moments that I hear a lot about, people coming through going, ‘I didn’t know that Indian communities were torn apart by the Revolution or that African Americans had to make certain decisions,’” Turdo said. “That can be very eye-opening because a lot of the themes that we reflect in the galleries are themes and conversations that we’re still having in this country. In some ways, that can be very comforting, to realize that if we haven’t solved it, that’s OK; we’re still working on it.”
National Museum of the Pacific War
Why would a museum about a Pacific war be in a landlocked city in Texas? Because Fredericksburg is the birthplace of Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific during World War II. As Nimitz got older, some local businessmen approached him about opening a museum in his honor. He said no, but eventually agreed if they would make it about the men and women who served under him, said Brandon Vinyard, director of marketing and public relations for the museum.
The museum is now a six-acre complex that started in the Nimitz Steamboat Hotel, owned by the admiral’s grandfather. It’s now the home of the Admiral Nimitz Gallery. There is also the George H.W. Bush Gallery, which tells the chronological story of the war.
“We actually go back 100 years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and kind of set the stage for why Japan attacked the U.S.,” Vinyard said. “It wasn’t that they just kind of woke up one day and, you know, decided to do it. There were a lot of incidents that led up to it. We follow that all the way to the surrender aboard the USS Missouri.”
Some one-of-a-kind items on display are an HA. 19 Japanese midget submarine, which was actually used in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“It ran aground during the attack, and the captain of that vessel was the first POW during World War II for the U.S.,” Vinyard said.
There’s also an Australian Stuart tank that was taken out by a Japanese gun, and the museum also has that gun, as well as the tank commander’s videography.
Two blocks down the road is the Combat Zone, which includes a PT-309 boat and a TBM Avenger, exactly like the one flown by George H.W. Bush in the war. Several weekends a year, there are full battle reenactments where guests can see what battlefield life was like.
But the museum is not just about battles. “We pride ourselves on telling the human story of the Pacific,” Vinyard said. “We don’t just focus on the American side against the Japanese. We really focus on how World War II in the Pacific affected the world as a whole.”
American Civil War Museum
The American Civil War was a brutal conflict that divided the nation and whose effects still haunt the American consciousness. In Richmond, Virginia, two museums — the Museum of the Confederacy and the White House of the Confederacy — became the American Civil War Center in the early 2000s. Starting May 4, 2019, they are all a part of the new American Civil War Museum.
All the exhibits in the museum are new, said communications manager Jeniffer Maloney. Guests will experience many of the exhibits interactively and through unique interpretations.
“In one section, there is a clear glass hole in the floor, covered by a plexiglass surface,” Maloney said. “As you look down, you can see artifacts that were actually found on the battlefield, everything from shoes to bullets.”
The building was constructed around the ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works, the biggest ironworks in the Confederacy. There is a “Tredegar Works” exhibit, a self-guided tour of the ironworks site, and a “Water Works” interactive exhibit designed for younger visitors.
“It’s a beautiful building, and it reinforces our mission statement: to present the Civil War from multiple perspectives — Union, Confederate, enslaved African Americans and free African Americans, women and children, and how it touched everybody,” Maloney said.
The museum also has a branch at Appomattox, and visitors can still walk through the White House of the Confederacy, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family lived.