I love museums. Absolutely love them. For every type of art, history or science I am there. On trips, I beg my family to slow down so I can read more of the plaques and I ask for detours on road trips just to see another museum. Naturally, I was thrilled to know we were getting a chance to see the National World War II Museum. Spread out across five separate buildings, the museum felt brand new and was packed with people. We started out by watching a movie narrated by Tom Hanks in 4D. It was incredibly immersive. Bright flashes of gunfire jumped out from the jungle and the nozzle of a plane lowered from the ceiling. Even the seats vibrated! It told the same story I’d heard in every history class, but the multimedia aspects made everyone pay deep attention.
The exhibits themselves were also very well done. All of the information was presented in a kind of set-piece built to resemble the location where those events took place. The Campaigns of Courage building detailed the European and Pacific Theaters of the war. The Road to Berlin began all the way in North Africa and wound its way through the rubble of bombings in Italy and France to its final end in a heartbreaking video among the barbed wire of a concentration camp just outside Berlin. The Road to Toyko began as the inside of a naval aircraft carrier and had visitors tramping through the jungles of Guadalcanal and peering inside the cave hideouts of Japanese soldiers in Iwo Jima. This campaign, too, ended with a sad scene: the devastation left by the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I left the museum feeling sad and contemplative. In the US, WWII is so often heralded as the great American victory over tyranny; the beginning of a golden age of American industry and power in the world. But though we learned about the horrors of wars in school, the immersive experience provided by the museum brought a certain reality to that sanitized textbook version of history. I watched videos of dead concentration camp victims being tossed like a sack of grain onto a cart of other bodies. I watched a Japanese woman fling herself off a cliff after her child who already floated, dead, below, because the propaganda had so convinced her that being in the hands of an American was worse than death. Even the stories of “victories” felt hollow after that. They were all told in terms of casualties and ships destroyed. If the Allies won, it was because more people died on the Axis side than on theirs. That is not a triumphant victory to me. If we say WWII catapulted the US into a world superpower, then we also say our country benefitted off of causing death. The museum celebrated veterans and their sacrifices while remembering all the people who died on both sides of our world’s most devastating conflict. I greatly admire the efforts of the people who produced this museum and I hope that as many people as possible get a chance to learn all that I did.