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Ultramodern museum honors Corps history

Dec. 29, 2006 - 04:03PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 29, 2006 - 04:03PM  |  
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INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC">A virtual tour of the Marine Corps Museum

It's all about Marines, but you don't have to wear the eagle, globe and anchor to love the new National Museum of the Marine Corps.

We're history junkies, but we don't rave about military museums very often. They tend to be dull, stuffy buildings full of antique firearms and dusty old uniform items encased in glass, with tiny placards announcing another in a long string of historical dates you should know, but just can't seem to make stick in your brain.

But you don't want to miss this new museum, located just a stone's throw from the main gate at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

As you make your way through some of the most immersive exhibits ever seen in a military museum, you'll feel the rumble of an amphibious tractor bringing you to a beachhead under fire, the chill of the frozen battlefields of North Korea and the heat of the Vietnamese jungle. You'll even get an earful from an ill-tempered Marine Corps drill instructor.

It's an experience you'll never forget.

Those who don't already know the Corps will find an experience that may be the next best thing to stepping onto the yellow footprints at Marine Corps boot camp.

Only the beginning

Designed by Fentress Bradburn Architects of Denver, the museum is a joint venture between the Marine Corps and the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. The service provided about $30 million to restore artifacts and design exhibits, while the foundation raised $60 million in building-construction funds.

The completion of the 118,000-square-foot building, on a 135-acre site near Quantico, ends what is only the first phase of a project that began in 1999. It opened Nov. 13, 2006, with four permanent galleries; two temporary exhibits highlight the Marine Corps Combat Art Program and the Corps' role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though visitors will have to pay to try some exhibit items, such as a marksmanship simulator and flight simulator, admission and parking at the museum are free.

Like most museums, this one includes a cafeteria, but here, too, the museum is uniquely Marine. Just off the mess hall is a fully functional beer hall a replica of Philadelphia's Tun Tavern, the colonial watering hole cited as the birthplace of the Marine Corps.

Four more galleries likely coming in 2008 or 2009 will replace the two temporary exhibits. Those are expected to highlight the colonial era, the Civil War, World War I and the period between the two world wars.

A second phase calls for additional exhibits, an IMAX theater, a display armory, parade ground, hiking trails, a memorial park and a chapel; the building is expected to expand to nearly 181,000 square feet.

Awe-inspiring entrance

Visitors entering the museum step first into the Leatherneck Gallery, a stunning rotunda beneath the tilted mast. Overhead, a peaked steel-and-glass roof supports the mast; on sunny days, the room is bathed in light.

The rest of the museum is a hands-on experience that lets the visitor get up close and personal with the Corps, but this first gallery is intended to be a quiet space, a place to "contemplate the history of the Marine Corps," said Lin Ezell, the museum director.

The cast figures are strikingly accurate. They should be, considering current-day Marines volunteered for model duty, subjecting themselves to a three-hour, full-body casting process.

Wherever possible, exhibit designers brought in Marines holding the job specialty of the mannequin subject radio operators posed for radio-operator display characters, for example to ensure the most accurate portrayal possible of each of the more than 70 figures, Ezell said.

Sights and sounds of battle

The museum's first four permanent galleries drop the visitor into the middle of recruit training and combat.

With interactive displays and multimedia presentations, the sights and sounds of Marine life are nearly as real as the real thing. In some cases, room temperatures change to match the combat environment, and floors vibrate to mimic the feeling of movement in a military vehicle.

"Making Marines." Visitors start where Marines begin their journey boot camp. Voices fill the air at the gallery's opening piece, a recruitment bus filled with anxious newbies. The voices are those of the recruits, whose anxious thoughts and concerns take visitors inside the mind of the enlistee. Those worried voices soon are joined by the full-volume blast of drill instructors offering their own special greetings to the new arrivals.

From there, visitors can get hands-on with the M16 rifle, taking aim in a laser-simulation marksmanship trainer. His-and-her booths afford visitors the chance to get a one-on-one butt-chewing from a male or female drill instructor.

"Uncommon Valor." The World War II exhibits begin not on the battlefield but in a home-front living room, where a family listens to President Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The room's wallpaper "dissolves" as the speech continues, replaced by images of the Japanese sneak attack.

Visitors "ride into war" in an amphibious assault vehicle when the landing ramp closes, 180-degree screens play black-and-white footage of the Iwo Jima landing as the vehicle vibrates and shakes to replicate the feel of crashing waves and the hum of the engine.

When the landing ramp drops, visitors step out onto the black sands of Iwo, where they walk through another combat scene before seeing one of the museum's highlight pieces: One of the two original flags raised over the island.

"Send in the Marines." The battle of the "Frozen Chosin" is the centerpiece of the Korean War gallery, highlighting the epic battle at the Chosin Reservoir.

After viewing a video presentation projected on a wall of "ice," visitors step into an adjoining room and instantly feel a chill the "Frozen Chosin" room is kept at 58 degrees.

In the Chosin, they join Capt. Bill Barber and his 200 or so leathernecks of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, in their defense of a mountain pass just as a Chinese regiment is about to attack. Barber received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the savage five-day, six-night fight that left about 1,000 enemy dead.

"In the Air, on Land and Sea." Given the length of the Vietnam War, the exhibits in this gallery focus not on the war's chronology, but on the types of fighting Marines experienced.

The most immersive exhibit is that of the 1967 battle at Hill 881 South. Visitors pass through a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter fuselage, hearing conversation among the pilots and crewmen before exiting the aircraft's back ramp to enter the combat scene.

The room is hotter than the rest of the museum, putting visitors in the "heat" of battle, complete with helicopter rotor wash and the sights and sounds of combat. The boot prints visitors see in the red clay floor of this exhibit are from standard-issue boots from the time.

History in photos

The history of the Corps' latest war is still being written, and its legends are still being made. Without the same wealth of historic material on hand, the museum tells the story of Marine Corps post-Sept. 11 operations in a photographic gallery called "Global War on Terrorism: The U.S. Marine Corps in Today's Fight."

This more conventional museum gallery features military and civilian photography of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones.

Marine Corps combat art is the central subject of a second temporary gallery. Since its inception in 1942, the Marine Corps Combat Art Program has grown to include more than 350 artists and nearly 8,000 works documenting Marine operations from Afghanistan to Somalia and beyond.

A few Marines stationed at Quantico have had opportunities for a sneak-peek at the museum. Among them was Capt. Skip Barth, with Marine Corps Systems Command.

As he walked the aisles of the photo gallery Oct. 25 in his second visit to the museum, Barth shared his thoughts on the striking photography. He deployed to Iraq with several of the photographers whose work is featured there and said the photos brought back memories of his war-zone tour.

"It's awesome," he said. "Seeing the firefights ... it's showing Marines doing what they do, leading [in] firefights, helping Iraqis, helping in the villages."

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