Museums, Military History

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Museums, Military History. The essential mission of military museums in the United States remains teaching through the study and interpretation of historical artifacts, first exemplified at America's oldest armed forces museum, the Musée d’Artillerie (1843) at West Point. Unlike centralized war museums found in many European capitals, American military museums and sites are located throughout the nation, frequently at battlefields, seaports, forts, or military bases that provide added ambiance. Scores of specialized facilities in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard museum systems serve primarily for the instruction and inspiration of military personnel. Yet, like many nonservice museums—including those of the National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, state governments, and private associations—service museums possess a widespread public constituency, at whose care is the veterans' community.

Reflecting broader historical perspective, American military museums currently build collections documenting both military material and the experience of all ranks in the services, envisioned in relation to national social, political, and economic development. Exhibit policies are founded upon major collections of militaria that emerged during the nineteenth century, beginning with ranks of British field guns, surrendered at the Battles of Saratoga in 1777, that provided the initial artifactual core at West Point. Under Congressional authorization (1814), trophy flags taken during the War of 1812, Mexican War, and Civil War were deposited at West Point and the Naval Academy Lyceum (1845) at Annapolis, Maryland. Construction of the nation's first system of coastal fortifications (1815–53), the founding of armories at Springfield (1794) and Harpers Ferry (1796), and establishment of arsenals at Watervliet (1813) and Rock Island (1862) provided an enduring material heritage, presently evoked in museums at Springfield, Harpers Ferry, Rock Island, Fort McHenry, Fort Monroe, Fort Adams, and Fort Point. The Quartermaster Corps Collection, begun in 1832 at Schuylkill Arsenal, Philadelphia, provided the basis for the army's extensive collections of uniforms, transferred in 1919 to the Smithsonian Institution. That congressionally mandated institution, whose first scientific collections were provided by the U.S. Exploring (Wilkes) Expedition of (1838–42), would emerge after World War I as a major repository of American army weaponry and biographical militaria, ultimately exhibited in the National Museum of American History (1961).

The Centennial of the American Revolution (1876) provided powerful impetus for establishment of national battlefield parks from that war and the Civil War, many eventually including museums with particularly evocative appeal—notably at Saratoga, Yorktown, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and Vicksburg. The advent of the modern steel navy, heralded at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, launched the navy's renowned warship model program, whose technical apogee was attained in the detailed models of battleship models constructed during World War II. Consisting of some 1,900 models, this collection is generously represented at the Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis, Maryland, the Navy Museum at Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Notwithstanding congressional proposals (1889) to establish a “national military and naval museum” in Washington, D.C., major efforts after two world wars for a national armed forces museum proved fruitless, most recently falling victim to antimilitary sentiment during the Vietnam War. In an era of rogue terrorism, the wide dispersal of military museums curiously bodes well for survival of the nation's military heritage.

The Army Museum System, including forty‐three accredited facilities in 1998, is located at West Point, New York, and at numerous training establishments in the South and Southwest, all of whose artifacts are recorded in the Center of Military History in Washington, D. C. Structured, like the maturely conceived West Point Museum, to serve an educational mission, the army's branch and service corps museums preserve and interpret specialized military collections. Notable branch museums range from the Ordnance Museum in Aberdeen, Maryland; the Medical Museum in Washington D.C.; the Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia; to the Special Warfare Museum at Fort Bragg North Carolina; the Cavalry Museum at Fort Riley, Kansas; and the Field Artillery Museum at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Army service corps establishments include the Transportation Corps Museum at Fort Eustis, Army Women's Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia and the Signal Corps Museum at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Among historic army posts, Fort Snelling at Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Frontier Army Museum at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, interpret the regular army's role in settlement of the West.

Similarly troop‐oriented are the seven facilities of the Marine Corps Museum System, including the U.S. Marine Corps Museum at Washington Navy Yard, the Marine Air‐Ground Museum at Quantico, Virginia, and the Parris Island Museum in South Carolina. The evolution of the oldest sea service is traced at the U.S. Coast Guard Museum at New London, Connecticut, and the Coast Guard Museum of the Northwest in Seattle, Washington. Evocative of America's role in the history of seapower are eleven elements of the Navy Museum System, particularly the Naval War College Museum at Newport, Rhode Island; the U.S. Navy Museum at Washington Navy Yard; Hampton Roads Museum at Norfolk, Virginia; and the Naval Academy Museum. The evolution of undersea warfare is recounted at the Submarine Force Museum at Groton, Connecticut, and the Naval Undersea Museum at Keyport. Necessarily more modern in orientation are the National Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola, Florida, and the Seabee Museum at Port Hueneme, Georgia. Monuments of American naval architecture are preserved in USS Constitution (still in commission) at Boston, Dewey's flagship Olympia at Philadelphia, and surviving World War II battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.

According to the Historic Naval Ships Association, in 1998 there were fifty‐six historic military vessels from World War II on exhibit in the United States. These included forty‐six U.S. warships, four armed merchant ships, and six Axis submarines (all midget subs except for the U‐505 at Chicago, Illinois). Of the U.S. warships, 15 were submarines. The rest included the battleships Alabama at Mobile, Alabama; Arizona and Missouri at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; North Carolina at Wilmington, North Carolina; and Texas at LaPorte, Texas. In 1998, groups were still seeking to acquire and exhibit Iowa, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Also on display were the aircraft carriers Hornet at Alameda, California; Intrepid at New York, New York; Lexington at Corpus Christi, Texas; and Yorktown at Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina (with a group seeking to acquire the Midway for San Diego, California). The Association includes World War II era warships on display abroad, notably the cruiser H.M.S. Belfast at London.

The development of American military aviation is emphasized in twenty‐six installations of the U.S. Air Force Museum System, including the Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin AFB, Pensacola, Florida; the Air Force Space Museum at Cape Canaveral, Florida; and the extensive collection at the U.S. Air Force Museum, operated under the Air Force Logistics Command at Wright‐Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. This is the oldest and largest aviation museum in the world, with more than 200 aircraft and large missiles, as well as over 20,000 aircraft components, personal effects, and photographs. Also technically oriented, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum includes vignettes of naval and military air service during the two world wars.

American military and naval history is explored in numerous private and state‐owned museums, reflecting widespread public appreciation of the armed forces' role in national development. Notable examples include the Museum of the Confederacy at Richmond, Virginia; the War Memorial Museum and Mariners' Museum at Newport News, Virginia; the Liberty Memorial Museum in Kansas City; and the Wisconsin Veterans' Museum in Madison. Exceptional insight into World War II strategy is afforded at President Franklin D. Roosevelt's estate at Hyde Park, New York; the Marshall Library and Museum at Lexington, Virginia; the MacArthur Memorial at Norfolk, Virginia, the Nimitz Historic Park at Fredericksburg, Virginia; and the Eisenhower Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.

Often highly popular not just with veterans and their families but with much of the general public, military museums in the United States perform important functions for the military and for the public, reminding them of the significant role the military has played in the nation's heritage.
[See also Academies, Service; Memorials, War.]


James V. Murfin , National Park Service Guide to the Historic Places of the American Revolution, 1974.
Richard E. Kuehne and and Michael E. Moss , The West Point Museum: A Guide to the Collections, 1987.
Bryce D. Thompson , The U.S. Military Museums, Historic Sites, and Exhibits, 1989.
Joseph M. Stanford, ed., Sea History's Guide to American and Canadian Maritime Museums, 1990.
R. Cody Phillips , A Guide to U.S. Army Museums, 1992.
Philip K. Lundeberg , Military Museums, in John E. Jessup, Jr., and Louise B. Ketz, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Military, 3 vols., 1994, Vol. III, pp. 2133–57.

Philip Karl Lundeberg

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