Pentagon's Historical Displays Honor Americans' Sacrifices

Nearly 18 million tourists descend on our nation's capitol every year, and most of them are keen to spend time at the many free museums in Washington, D.C. But only about 100,000 people take the trip across the river to a museum of a different sort: the Pentagon. The Pentagon's exhaustive historical displays offer fresh insight into the range of the Defense Department's activities.

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This Memorial Day weekend, tens of thousands of tourists are descending on the nation's capital. Many will spend time inside of Washington, D.C.'s free museums. Only a small fraction will take the drive across the Potomac River to a museum of a different sort, that's in the Pentagon. NPR's Shula Neuman reports.

SHULA NEUMAN, BYLINE: The Pentagon is the world's largest office building: 6.5 million square feet, eight zip codes. Its 17.5 miles of long, circular hallways are punctuated by faceless door placed at militarily precise intervals. The building has the potential to be mind-numbingly bland, but for the work of this man.

AL JONES: My name is Al Jones. I'm the OSD Exhibits Curator for the Pentagon reservation.

NEUMAN: Al Jones makes sure the corridors of the OSD - that's the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which occupies the majority of the Pentagon - are filled with historical displays that almost call to mind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but significantly more somber. Instead of guitars and glitter, there are guns and uniforms.

JONES: Think about what they represent. See, it's the sacrifice that men and women have been willing to provide over the years to preserve our freedom and carry out the DOD mission in that regard.

NEUMAN: The exhibits commemorate every war since 1812. They recognize humanitarian missions, celebrate collaborations with allies and memorialize the evolution of the Pentagon itself. For Jones, who came on board five years ago, the most meaningful exhibit is the one that commemorates soldiers missing in action or held as prisoners of war.

JONES: It represents the fallout, the sacrifice, the human sacrifice that takes place, and the loss and the family loss.

NEUMAN: The corridor features touch-screen displays that allow visitors to look up details about the soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen who have never been found - more than 80,000 of them, from World War II to today. And the exhibit has an impact, both for families of those missing in action and for unsuspecting visitors taking Pentagon tours.

AIRMAN FIRST CLASS STEPHEN SLOSSER: They're really awed.

NEUMAN: That's Airman First Class Stephen Slosser, Pentagon tour guide. He spends his day leading guests through the Pentagon, explaining the Defense Department's history and elaborating on the building's exhibits, all while walking backwards.

SLOSSER: I've noticed a lot of people, they're just, they're kind of quiet contemplation. They're just thinking about what they're actually witnessing, trying to take it all in.

NEUMAN: And it is a lot to take in - about 120 exhibits in all, thousands of photographs and portraits. Enough information to keep a visitor occupied for months. But there's one display that stands out. It's out left over from the early days of the Pentagon's venture into portraying its history

JONES: This young lady here, Ms. Bailey.

NEUMAN: Marian Bailey, to be specific - or a mannequin representing her. She sits in a glass-enclosed box - alone in an otherwise empty hall - dressed in her 1940s-era uniform. She's poised in front of the tangle of black wires of an old telephone switchboard. Mrs. Bailey worked at the Pentagon for 60 years starting when the building first opened in 1942.

JONES: She's the sweetheart of the Pentagon. She worked here forever. So, when we began to dismantle this, we had people stop and say you're not going to do away with Ms. Bailey, are you? What are you doing to do? I mean, you have keep Ms. Bailey. She's part of the Pentagon. So, so we've retained this portion of the exhibit and I still haven't figured out what I'm going to do with it.

NEUMAN: And that, says Al Jones, is the hardest part of his job: finding a way to include everything. He's now working on what could be the last major Pentagon installation: a comprehensive exhibit of the Pentagon itself. After it's done, the Pentagon corridors will pretty much be at capacity, leaving Jones with the awkward hope that the future will not include any more conflicts that need commemorating. Shula Neuman, NPR News, Washington.

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