CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Summer 2010
CRM Journal

Exhibit Review


National Museum of the Marine Corps

Triangle, Virginia; Designers: Fentress Architects; Curators: Christopher Chadbourne & Associates

Permanent

Marine Corps Base Quantico, approximately 35 miles south of Washington, DC, in Prince William County, Virginia, is widely known among American military servicemen and women as the “Crossroads of the Marine Corps”—the epicenter of U.S. Marine Corps concepts, doctrine, training, and equipment.1 Fittingly, the new National Museum of the Marine Corps, which opened its doors to the public in November 2006—in time to celebrate the 231st anniversary of the corps—is situated adjacent to the renowned base.

Designed by Fentress Architects of Denver, Colorado, and Washington, DC, the museum building is an architectural representation of the World War II flag-raising scene on Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima captured on film in 1945 by photographer Joe Rosenthal. A 210-foot central mast rises above a glass and steel shell that houses the museum. Although the museum has a 200,000 square-foot capacity, only 120,000 feet are currently in use, with other areas slated for future artifact restoration space and exhibit galleries.

Stepping through the front door, this reviewer was struck by the space’s orderliness and crispness, values shared by and expected of those who serve in the U.S. military. The museum effectively conveys the esprit de corps of the Marines. In the central gallery—the “Leatherneck Gallery”—10 quotes carved in the marble walls reinforce the reputation of the Marines as a reliable and highly successful specialized force. One, from U.S. Army Major General Frank E. Lowe, reads, “The safest place in Korea was right behind a platoon of Marines. Lord, how they could fight.” Eight “faces of the Marines” on display in the upper level of the gallery immediately humanize the history of the corps and showcase those who represent its core values.

The National Museum of the Marine Corps presents history through an interactive and engaging visitor experience. The “Legacy Walk,” a semi-circular passageway that leads visitors to the main galleries, presents the early history of the corps and briefly covers different warfare themes, particularly air, land, and water combat. The central Leatherneck Gallery uses videos, artifacts, text panels, and lifecast figures to relate the general history and early evolution of the corps. Eight galleries present the history of the Marine Corps in depth. The three largest galleries cover the history of the Marine Corps in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Each of the three provides background information on the origins of the war and illustrates the Marines’ role in the significant battles. In each case, curators incorporated the home front situation and global politics into the overall telling of a multi-faceted story.

The largest of these three galleries, “Uncommon Valor: Marines in World War II,” recounts the corps’ transition from an ill-equipped small expeditionary force to the organization that triumphantly raised the flag on Iwo Jima. One of the highlights of this gallery is the actual flag raised at Mount Suribachi. An impressive wall of 6,000 miniature eagle, globe, and anchor insignias represents the lives lost in the battle for Iwo Jima.

“Send in the Marines: The Korean War,” recounts the “forgotten war” and depicts such scenes as the end run at Inchon to the war-ravaged streets of Seoul. This gallery includes one of the museum’s most memorable exhibits about the Fox Company at Toktong Pass on the “Frozen” Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. Visitors enter a climate-controlled room where mural art, audio, lights, and lifecast figures simulate the harrowing conditions Marines faced during this battle. “In the Air, on Land and Sea: The War in Vietnam,” presents the story of the nation’s “longest war.” This gallery also features multimedia war scene exhibits. Visitors can descend from a CH-46 helicopter onto Hill 881 South and get a sense of the landing as experienced by the Marines.

Another gallery, aptly titled the “Combat Art Gallery,” is dedicated to art related to the Marine Corps and warfare and includes contemporary pieces and historic renderings of Marines. The last gallery on this level, “Making Marines,” immerses the visitor in the basic training experience and the transformation of a Marine Corps recruit from the time they step down off the bus at boot camp until graduation day. Audio booths let visitors experience the deafening and disorienting barrage of drill instructors’ orders. Visitors can also participate in interactive training scenarios, watch video testimonials of families during graduation day, and listen to audio clips on why recruits want to become Marines.

Many of the objects on display pertain to the hardware and accoutrements of warfare: uniforms, rifles, knifes, helmets, tanks, and aircraft.2 The exhibits do an excellent job of incorporating individual war stories through video interviews and oral history “booths” that personalize the experience of specific campaigns.

The galleries also include information on the civilians affected by each war. In the Vietnam War gallery, for example, text and image panels relate the fate of the Vietnamese refugees who had arrived at Camp Pendleton in California. Each gallery culminates with tally of the casualties of the war, reminding visitors that heroic actions come at a very high price.

The new National Museum of the Marine Corps has set a high standard upon which future military museums, notably the U.S. Army National Museum scheduled to open in 2009, will have to follow. Undoubtedly, the Marine Corps museum will have a built-in visitor base among former, present, and future Marines, their families, and military history buffs, but the challenge is in attracting the general public. With its emphasis on making history interesting, engaging, and personally relevant to the average visitor, the new National Museum of the Marine Corps should have little trouble meeting this challenge.

Caridad de la Vega
National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers

1. United States Marine Corps Base Quantico, “About Quantico,” http://www.quantico.usmc.mil/activities/display.aspx?PID+1685&Section+BaseInfo, accessed on September 19, 2007.

2. The museum has approximately 30,000 objects in its collection.