Years In The Making, The National Museum Of The U.S. Army Opens In Northern Virginia The oldest and largest of the military services is also the last to gets its own museum, housed in a dramatic steel-and-glass building containing rare artifacts and immersive exhibits.
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Years In The Making, The National Museum Of The U.S. Army Opens In Northern Virginia

World War One battle scene with cast figures at the National Museum of the United States Army. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Timed to coincide with Veterans Day, the newly constructed National Museum of the United States Army opens its doors today in Northern Virginia, displaying artifacts and offering visitors immersive exhibits on the history of the nation's oldest military branch.

Situated neatly at the top of a long entrance just outside of Fort Belvoir south of Alexandria, the museum has some really fascinating stuff: Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain's gauntlets from Gettysburg, the mangled engine of the first UH-60 shot down in Mogadishu, and even a flyer from 1920 depicting the Army's public health messaging during the flu pandemic.

Army poster with influenza precautions. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

But the star of the show is the focus on individual soldier stories and the stunning visual representation of the Army's role in life and war — the good, bad, and ugly.

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The building itself stands as a modern display of architecture. Visitors are greeted by a massive stainless steel and glass structure with six steel pylons just outside the doors depicting individual soldiers and their service. The display is intended to set the tone for what museum staff say is the Army's most important asset — its people. Once inside the 8,600-square-foot lobby, veterans will immediately notice the ceiling adorned with illuminated glass panels depicting the Army's campaigns and corresponding ribbons worn on the service uniform.

Architecture is often symbolic, and the choice of building materials goes beyond the visual appeal here too, according to Susan Smullen, the museum's public affairs officer.

"Stainless steel represents the strength of the Army and the resiliency of the Army, but also the reflective nature of the Army as a representation of American society," she says.

The highest level of the museum is a glass ceiling illuminated at night, representing "the light of freedom and democracy." Visitors walk through the remaining steel pillars with rotating digital images of soldiers from all eras, and not simply focused on those injured or killed in action. The pillars are set up in a marching formation and can be easily rotated and updated.

"We were very careful in choosing stories that hold a very balanced approach to the Army's history," says Paul Morando, the museum's chief of exhibits. "There are so many stories of the Army... it's a big organization."

The exterior of the National Museum of the United States Army is clad in stainless steel and glass. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

The exhibit halls themselves are designed to guide visitors through a chronological experience of Army's history, but they can easily be viewed out of order. Each exhibit is centered around a signature and usually large-scale artifact to center the visual representation of the era. But it also creates an immersive experience that brings individuals to the conflicts depicted in a way traditional artifacts can't.

Upon entering the exhibit on World War I, the path through physical artifacts takes you along a walkway that feels like a dark trench, leading to a dynamic battle display. The wax-cast soldiers in this and other tableaus are actual replicas of current soldiers, down to every facial feature.

The modern warfare section asks visitors to look down and physically step over a part of the floor topped with glass, containing improvised explosive devices found in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army Lieutenant Col. Ashley Hartwell posed for a cast depicting the story of women who served in the 'Forever Wars.' Her likeness stands encased in glass, holding the M249 machine gun and wearing the Army combat uniform with body armor used at the time.

"She had deployed twice and served in units with similar duties so she knew exactly how it might feel to be on patrol and could accurately represent the emotion and facial expressions, and how she would be holding her weapon," says Smullen.

Smullen adds that when Hartwell originally posed for the replica, she remarked to museum staff that her body armor gave her bruises up and down her back because it was never fitted for women's body types. Although they were patrolling alongside men, women still weren't allowed to serve in combat.

"Combat positions were not open to women during that time frame, but that doesn't mean they weren't in combat situations," Morando says. "Clearly they were impacted, and we wanted to ensure that storyline came across."

It took almost 200 years to fully integrate the Army, despite Black soldiers being part of the fighting force from its inception. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order to establish the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services and commit the government to integrating the segregated military, but Black soldiers were still held back from many jobs and leadership in the service. It wasn't until 1954 that the Army deactivated the last segregated Black unit. Though women were able to join the Army in peacetime after 1948, it wasn't until the 1970's that they were able to take command positions in non-combat roles.

Cast figures at the National Museum of the United States Army. On left, "Corporal on Patrol in Ramadi" during the Iraq War. On right, "Corporal, 9th Infantry Division" during the Vietnam War. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

The museum doesn't shy away from these and other dark spots in its history like the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and civilian deaths at the hands of soldiers in Vietnam. The "Army and Society" exhibit provides context for discussion of these events.

"We look at the relationship between Americans and the Army, and that's where we tackle subjects like segregation and the role of women in the Army," says Morando. "We address those topics and those subjects in a standalone gallery to have that conversation and discussion through graphic panels, photographs, and exhibits."

"Army and Society" is a massive room with graphic panels depicting everything from the Army's influence on aviation to using soldiers to quell civil unrest throughout the 20th century. But stories about Black soldiers and women are seamlessly woven throughout the other war galleries too, as an organic part of each conflict's narrative.

The museum was a joint effort between the U.S. Army and the Army Historical Foundation, established in 1983 as a nonprofit with the mission of educating Americans about the service and sacrifices of American soldiers. The group has been housed at Fort Belvoir in Washington, D.C. and helps to refurbish historic Army buildings and acquire artifacts. The foundation also supports Army historical educational programs and the publication of historical materials. By June, the foundation raised over $183 million of the museum's capital campaign. The U.S. Army provided the land, roads, utilities and exhibit work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers providing site preparation for the initial construction project, which started in 2016.

Each branch of service now has a national museum, though some are more accessible to civilians than others. The Navy has announced plans to transform the current museum at the Washington Navy Yard. It hopes unfettered access to civilians and a more modern experience will "enhance the public understanding" of the Navy.

Museum director Tammy Call grew up in an Army family and is a veteran herself, having served as an ordinance officer. Call says she hopes visitors see a reflection of themselves in the depictions of soldiers at the museum. "Our soldiers have been here for this country. They're members of all of our communities," she says.

Among those reflections are reminders that today's Army faces many of the same challenges as soldiers in previous eras faced. A poster hangs in the "Army and Society" exhibit referencing the 1918 flu pandemic. "We were in World War I, and so we were transporting soldiers overseas," says Call. Making sure soldiers received accurate information about staying safe during transport was a major concern for the Army in 1918, just like it is today during the coronavirus pandemic.

Call read the instructions on the notice dated from 1920 to soldiers on how to stay safe. Many of the guidelines are the same as you might see on an Army base today: "Wash hands before each meal...cough and sneeze in your handkerchief... eat nourishing food and exercise in the open air," the sign reads.

It also reminds soldiers never to spit on the floor — still a work in progress a century later.

The museum will open with enhanced health and safety measures for visitors on Veterans Day. Free, timed-entry tickets will be required to manage visitor capacity and provide an optimal experience for visitors until further notice. Masks are required.

Victoria Chamberlin is a reporter in the WAMU newsroom and an Army veteran.

Correction Nov. 12, 2020

This story was updated to reflect that the Army Historical Society is based at Fort Belvoir, and to correct references to Susan Smullen and information about Tammy Call's service in the Army.

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