A ‘Smithsonian’

lgordon@ledger-enquirer.comJune 14, 2009 

Hermann Goring’s diamond-encrusted baton. Graffiti-etched panels of the Berlin Wall. Revolutionary War swords and crumbling leather scabbards.

Those are just a few of the thousands of priceless artifacts that will be on display at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park beginning Friday.

Each treasure has been hand selected, painstakingly cleaned, professionally preserved and thoughtfully displayed within the mammoth museum’s state-of-the-art galleries.

“It’s going to be very emotional,” said museum director Michael Criscillis, a curator employed by the Department of Defense, which owns the collection. “In my lifetime I’ve never seen a museum like this come together. This is really the Smithsonian of the Army. There’s nothing like it anywhere else.”

Like the Smithsonian Institution or the U.S. Army Center of Military History, which are located in Washington, the National Infantry Museum boasts rare and authentic pieces of history.

Take the “Last 100 Yards” exhibit, for example. In no other museum can you join the U.S. Army infantryman on an interactive journey through history. The sloped attraction features a real Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a decommissioned Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey helicopter and a Waco CG-4A glider from World War II.

“We really intended the ‘Last 100 Yards’ exhibit to be a walk-through epic movie,” said Brent Johnson, senior exhibit designer with the Boston-based museum and exhibit design firm Christopher Chadbourne & Associates. “We want emotional reactions from people. I don’t think you’d be able to walk the ‘Last 100 Yards’ without getting a tear in your eye.”

“We’re picking up the history of the infantryman from 1775 and bringing it forward through today,” Criscillis said. “We’re going to have some neat artifacts from Afghanistan. We’re going to have some that are going to be from Iraq, this current (Operation Iraqi Freedom) that’s going on. We’re going to have some from Desert Shield and Desert Storm. We’re going to have some from Panama, Grenada that haven’t been seen before.”

World class collection

The former National Infantry Museum, which closed its doors in March 2008, boasted some 300 exhibits and galleries. At any given time there were about 5,000 artifacts on display in the three-story building located on post, Criscillis said. That’s only about 10 percent of the museum’s total collection, meaning roughly 47,000 artifacts had to be placed in storage because of lack of space.

Space isn’t an issue anymore, what with the 185,000-square-foot, two-story monument to the infantryman now sitting off Benning Boulevard. But even with all that room, only about 2,000 artifacts will be on display at a time.

Johnson explained why:

“We use artifacts as windows to their stories,” he said. “We just don’t typically pull out an artifact for the sake of having a lot of artifacts. We look for artifacts that have some pretty powerful stories behind them.”

Johnson said he’s particularly impressed with the museum’s collection of objects and artifacts made by American prisoners of war. He also enjoyed designing exhibits around historical pieces such as Gen. Ulysses Grant’s liquor cabinet.

In an effort to encourage repeat visits to the National Infantry Museum, many of the exhibits will be flexible, Criscillis and Johnson said.

“The idea of rotating objects and artifacts is definitely to create interest and to make sure the artifacts stay in good shape,” Johnson said.

“A lot of the artifacts will be on permanent display, but we will have a rotating gallery,” Criscillis said. “We will have special exhibits to help the foundation to raise money. We’ll do special events to show the different types of artifacts that we’ve had in storage for years that we haven’t been able to put out.”

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