Saturday, November 22, 2008

What is it good for?

I just got back from a visit to the Virginia War Museum in Newport News. I've been wanting to take a proper drive with Chi Chi for a couple weeks, to get out of Wmsbrg and explore the area a little more. There is a LOT of history here, so it made sense for me to make a museum my destination. The initial problem was--which one? But I decided I just wasn't ready for the Museum of the Confederacy (or driving in Richmond city-traffic) so I headed over to Newport News.

The Virginia War Museum, I learned from a plaque outside, was conceived in 1923, designated the official repository for Virginia's war mementos in the forties, and moved into their current building in the 1960s. The building is brick and low, the letters on the sign that distinctive thin 60's typeset. It took me a few mis-turns before I found the entrance, went in and paid my $6 entrance fee. I got there about one pm, and I think I was probably the only person in there for a great deal of the afternoon. The museum is laid out in a wandering maze pattern that leads you gradually from the Revolutionary War up to the Vietnam War. I could hear other people talking or walking behind me, but they might have been employees.

It's interesting how much this area has experienced war. From the literal sense of the word "experienced," when the Revolutionary and Civil wars ran roughshod over Virgina, to the more abstract sense--the peninsula boasts several military bases, after all, and during much of the 20th century they had a booming shipbuilding industry. I was disappointed they didn't have more artifacts from the Revolutionary time period, but it makes sense, considering competition is high in this area, and other institutions (like CW) that are focused primarily on that period probably try harder to add to their collections. (Interestingly, the one hunting frock on display from the Revolutionary War was tagged as a replica--yeah, a replica of the one CW has in their collection) The VWM is definitely a donations-based institution. The exhibits are decades old, no touch screens or hands-on exhibits here. (I approve. It's a museum-goer's museum. None of your faffy bright colors or large print signs here!) Several of the exhibits in the Civil War section featured items used by a single Confederate soldier--obviously a collection handed down through the family before being donated to the museum. There were also lots of uniforms, which was interesting for me to look at, although I was dying to get my hands on most of them.

Overall I found the museum very interesting. It is definitely an ambitious building--the history of all the military branches, in all the conflicts of the history of the US--that it's easy to feel like something has been left out. A lot of times the chronology felt sort of haphazard, and it was easy to get confused about what was happening where, especially in less familiar conflicts like the Spanish-American War or the Korean War. The biggest exhibit was on World War II. It was easy to see how the veterans of that conflict had come back, made good, and were now endowing a new museum to house their artifacts and the artifacts of other fellow soldiers. But the museum is desperately in need of an update--I found myself being slightly offended by the fact that the different sections of the Axis powers exhibits had different fonts for each country: gothic for Germany, brushstrokes for Japan, something reminiscent of a restaurant for Italy, etc. I was also overwhelmed by the sheer amount of firepower in the museum. I find myself drawn to the little things soldiers carried with them, uniforms, pictures, playing cards, art they've made. But here there were sections, just walls of old guns. My initial interest at seeing a Brown Bess (like what I use in the militia) quickly waned as the amount of guns got overwhelming. They're considered museum pieces now, but most of them are probably still useable. That's depressing.

As I wandered through the exhibits, I was mostly struck by how history repeats itself. Over and over again, posters decrying wrongs against America, urging citizens to take up arms--and then declarations of war, changes in uniform, changes in attitude, people adjusting to living during wartime. Happy reunions and soldiers never coming home. There was no exhibit on the current conflict, or much of anything after 1973--disappointing, to be sure, but probably a prudent course of action. This museum is desperate need of an update, and I hope they get it. It's a good overview of the history of the local area--informative, and ultimately fueling the desire to want to know more. But it could be so much cooler with some of the new museum techniques.

I drove home on route 60, a meandering two-lane highway that recalls the best parts of Wisconsin Dells, with it's cheap restaurants and far too many stoplights. My thoughts were mostly consumed with trying to remember the lyrics to Mamma Mia! but I also had a new appreciation for this area. Virginia is the "first colony," like it's most famous son, the first in war, first in peace, and the first to offer herself up in service of her country.

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