Honoring History with History: 15 Years at The National WWII Museum
Since opening in June 6, 2000, The National WWII Museum has offered an immersive and innovative look at the American experience in World War II. Fifteen years of educating visitors from around the globe through state-of-the-art exhibits and poignant personal narratives has earned the Museum a reputation as a top-rated tourist destination, all while preserving the rich historical heritage of the city it calls home.
Why New Orleans?
New Orleans is a city famous for its cultural history, unique dining experiences, and rich music scene—but many visitors to the Museum wonder at the connection between the vibrant city and the military campaigns of WWII. In fact, the city of New Orleans played a critical role in the war that changed the world, particularly in the amphibious invasion of Normandy on D-Day.
Support from New Orleans began in the late 1930s, when a local watercraft manufacturer named Andrew Jackson Higgins began to adapt his shallow-water work boats to meet a high military demand for landing crafts. The resulting vehicle, known as an LCVP (Land Craft, Vehicle, Personnel), was capable of transporting men, heavy equipment, and military vehicles from ship to shore. By late 1943, Higgins’s seven plants employed more than 25,000 workers, and by the end of the war, Higgins Industries had shipped out over 20,000 boats—12,500 of those LCVPs.
These boats were crucial to the success of several major US amphibious operations. They were particularly critical on D-Day, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the nation’s military and political leaders. Eisenhower claimed that the strategies used in the war might have been very different without the boats, calling Higgins “the man who won the war for us.”
History of the Museum
On June 6, 2000—the 56th anniversary of D-Day—Stephen Ambrose and Dr. Gordon “Nick” Mueller, PhD founded what began as the D-Day Museum. Originally focused on the Normandy invasion, the Museum expanded with the D-Day Invasions in the Pacific gallery, which opened on December 7, 2001. By August 2003, the Museum welcomed its 1 millionth visitor.
In 2004, Congress designated the Museum the nation’s official World War II Museum. Hurricane Katrina followed shortly thereafter on August 29, 2005, bringing flooding, property damage, and mass evacuations in its wake. The Museum closed its doors until December 2 of that year.
It officially became The National WWII Museum in June 2006. Its expansive scope, which now detailed the American experience in all of World War II, cemented the Museum’s reputation for implementing exceptional educational and preservation programs. That November, the Museum hosted its first International Conference on WWII; speakers at the acclaimed event included Ken Burns, Madeleine Albright, James Bradley, and Medal of Honor recipients.
The Museum’s educational programs have flourished over the years, thanks in part to the August 2007 launch of the web-based virtual field trip, which brings the Museum experience to students from around the world. Since beginning the virtual field trips, student webinars (2011), and Skype programs (2013), the Museum’s education department has connected with students in Canada, England, Spain, Serbia, Honduras, and New Zealand. The Museum brought National History Day back to Louisiana in May 2009 by hosting Louisiana History Day and sending four students to the national contest in College Park, Maryland.
The Solomon Victory Theater Complex opened to the public in November 2009, along with the Stage Door Canteen, the American Sector + Bar, and Beyond All Boundaries, the Museum’s exclusive 4D experience produced by Tom Hanks. Hanks has helped raise money for the Museum from the beginning and has worked to document the WWII story throughout his career.
On its 10th anniversary, and the 66th anniversary of D-Day, Museum donors also ensured the success of the “$10 for Them” campaign, which guaranteed complimentary admission for all WWII veterans. In the same year, a donated telegraph informing the family of Roy Joseph Miletta that he survived the sinking of the USS Tang became the Museum’s 100,000th artifact.
After welcoming its 3 millionth visitor in 2012, the Museum opened the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center in January 2013. This new pavilion celebrated all branches of service, with a fleet of WWII ground vehicles, six warbirds—including a B-17E Flying Fortress—and the interactive Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience. In December 2013, the Museum launched an online expansion in the form of ww2online.com, the online home of images, oral histories, and digital artifacts. Today, the Museum’s digital collections feature 247 oral histories, including over 500 hours of interviews and over 10,000 images.
The Museum commemorated the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014 with events in both New Orleans and Normandy, helping cement the Museum as an authority on World War II. That July, the Museum surpassed the 4 million-visitor mark, and in December, the doors opened to the Museum’s fifth pavilion, Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters, with the ribbon cutting of its first floor exhibit, Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries.
Future of the Museum
The National WWII Museum has planned a number of expansions, all designed to continue the mission of the Museum: to educate audiences about the lasting significance of World War II for generations to come. Having raised $245 million of a goal of $325 million for a capital expansion project, the Museum plans to quadruple the size of the original facility.
December 2015 will see the opening of the Museum’s newest pavilion, Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries, which will explore fighting strategies, cultural differences, and the extreme conditions of Asia and the Pacific during the war. In addition, the December opening will showcase the American Spirit Bridge, an 87-foot-long span that will connect the Museum’s Louisiana Memorial Pavilion to the rest of the six-acre campus. Situated at the end of the new bridge will be the stand-alone Merchant Marine: We Deliver the Goods Gallery, which will honor the civilian merchant mariners who risked their lives transporting weapons, men, and materials overseas.
Finally, the 2017 opening of the three-story Liberation Pavilion will explore the closing months of the war and immediate postwar years. Longtime advocate and former Museum chairman Boysie Bollinger’s record-setting $20 million donation in March 2015 will fund the Canopy of Peace, a 150-foot-tall structure to shade the Museum’s campus.
Local Impact of the Museum
As the top-rated tourist destination in New Orleans, the National WWII Museum has attracted more than four million visitors to date, including 660,000 students and teachers. However, visitors flock not only from Louisiana but also from around the world, drawn by the opportunity to experience the immersive exhibits and state-of-the-art multimedia experiences the Museum houses. The economic benefits have been huge: the Museum was responsible for 200,000 hotel room stays in 2014 alone, when 85 percent of visitors came from out of state.
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