National Museum of American History’s New Exhibition Examines 250 Years of American Military Conflicts
Dedication Ceremony and Press Preview—Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 9 a.m. Media who wish to cover this invitation-only event should call in advance, (202) 633-3129.
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The most comprehensive exhibition of military conflicts in American history will open on Veterans Day, Thursday, Nov.11, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The 18,200-square-foot exhibition, “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War,” surveys the history of America’s military from the Revolutionary War to the present conflict in Iraq, exploring ways that wars have been defining episodes in American history. The exhibition is located in the museum’s new Kenneth E. Behring Hall of Military History, which was made possible through the generosity of California businessman and philanthropist Kenneth E. Behring.
“This exhibition—the only one of its kind in a U.S. museum—gives visitors a sweeping and memorable overview of America’s military experience and the central role it has played in our national life,” says Brent Glass, director of the National Museum of American History. “Visitors will experience the impact of war on citizen soldiers—average men and women who serve their country—as well as on their families and communities.”
Using more than 850 artifacts and graphic images, the exhibition tells how Americans have fought to establish the nation’s independence, determine its borders, shape its values of freedom and opportunity and define its role in world affairs. Because American wars have social as well as military impact, the exhibition extends far beyond a survey of battles to present the link between military conflict and American political leadership, social values, technological innovation and personal sacrifice.
“The Price of Freedom” uses both a chronological and thematic approach to U.S. military history and explores how these events have influenced soldiers as well as civilian communities. The exhibition is arranged chronologically into 10 sections: an introduction to the exhibit; the Revolutionary War; the Wars of Expansion, which include the Indian Wars, the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War; the Civil War; World War I; World War II; the Cold War and Korean War; the Vietnam War; recent conflicts, including the 1991 Gulf War, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and a section on the Medal of Honor.
Throughout each gallery, the exhibition is enhanced by first-person narratives (“My Stories”) on touch-screen computers that allow visitors to choose from different, personal accounts to tell the experiences of ordinary men and women during times of conflict. In addition to these interactive stations, 40 panels located throughout the exhibition express individual points-of-view about the U.S. military and its role in wars and other conflicts. Among the highlighted objects on display are the sword and scabbard George Washington wore when reviewing troops before the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794; the buckskin coat worn by George Custer while he was stationed at frontier Army posts in the West during the Western Indian War; the chairs Civil War generals Lee and Grant used during the surrender ceremony at Appomattox Court House, Va.; a Willys Jeep, used for transporting troops and supplies during World War II; Colin Powell’s uniform from Operation Desert Storm; and a “Packbot” robot used, for the first time, in Afghanistan to help troops explore compounds and caves from a safe distance.
The largest single object on display is located in the Vietnam section of the exhibition. The restored UH-1H Huey Helicopter, manufactured by Bell Helicopter in 1965, was deployed to Vietnam in 1966 and served with the 173rd Assault Helicopter Co., known as the “Robin Hoods.”
Many of the other artifacts in this section have never been on display before, including a bicycle used on the Ho Chi Minh trail, and the POW uniform worn by Navy Cmdr. Allen Carpenter, who was a prisoner of war from 1966 to 1973. The History Channel created and donated nine videos for the exhibition, including the final film, “Fighting for America.”
“Because wars have been defining episodes in American history,” project director David Allison says, “it is important that we reflect on their causes, development and consequences. We hope that as people visit the exhibition, they will consider how wars have changed the nation, shaped American society and individually touched them and their families.”
“The freedoms I have enjoyed here in the United States allowed me to achieve the American dream,” donor Kenneth Behring says. “But I know those freedoms came at a high price, at great cost to many of our brave men and women in the U.S. military. Sponsoring this exhibition allows me to express my respect and appreciation to them and to repay their sacrifice in some way, by reminding Americans once again that freedom is not free.”
Displays will tell stories of how men, women and children have been a part of the nation’s military history. Young visitors will have a range of hands-on opportunities to explore the soldier’s experience in different eras. A self-guided exhibition brochure will encourage visitors to stop at four “stamping” stations throughout the exhibition to create personal souvenirs of their experience. Visitors may add distinctive marks to their brochures: a Revolutionary War stamp tax; a Civil War belt buckle (Union or Confederate); a World War II dog tag and a rubbing from the Vietnam Memorial wall. Docents will staff a demonstration area related to the Revolutionary War and will be available throughout the exhibition as gallery interpreters. Schedules for tours and demonstrations will be available daily at the museum’s information desks. A teacher’s manual for grades five through 12 includes a DVD with video presentations from the exhibition and will be distributed nationally in hard copy and electronically through the exhibition’s Web site (https://americanhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory). The Web site is scheduled to launch Nov. 10. An extensive series of public programs will begin with an opening festival on Saturday, Nov. 13.
Christopher Chadbourne & Associates of Boston designed the exhibition. Design and Production Inc. of Lorton, Va. was responsible for the fabrication and installation of the exhibition.
The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at https://americanhistory.si.edu or call (202) 633-1000.