National World War II Museum: Bringing the battle to life

The New Orleans National World War II Museum uses immersive tech to boost teaching power – and also entertain.

By MARK GUARINO  |  Correspondent/ November 9, 2009 edition

There are those who served at the battlefront and witnessed first-hand the ugliness of war. And there are the rest of us who experience it from behind exhibition glass.

This month in New Orleans, however, The National World War II Museum is opening the doors to a new $60 million complex that will feature as its centerpiece a 35-minute film designed to virtually transport viewers 70 years into the past through technology marketed as “4-D cinematics,” including special lighting, fog, stage snow, moving props, surround sound, and digital animation.

Immersive film experiences are usually reserved for wide-screen nature documentaries at science museums or concert films featuring megabands like the Rolling Stones or U2. “Beyond All Boundaries,” the film that will run in perpetuity in New Orleans at the 250-seat Victory Theater, is the first designed to teach history, in particular of a war about which most Americans remain especially reverent.

Turning to Hollywood to accomplish what history exhibitions did in the past is a trend that the museum establishment is finding a lot harder to ignore. Advances in media technology and a concern about reaching younger generations are forcing museum curators to think about moving past found artifacts and into the virtual realm, which is more interactive and offers the opportunity to present multiple perspectives of a single event or issue.

Museum consultant Josh Feinberg, who helped develop exhibitions for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, says that museums are “realizing they need to kind of keep up and remain attractive in this media-heavy world” and that often creates “a blurring of lines between education and entertainment.”

Mr. Feinberg says that because there “sometimes is a rush to use technology,” there is a danger of “sacrificing the content in favor of doing something flashy.”

“There are plenty of ways to engage kids, but if it’s not educational or [doesn’t] … connect them to the content in a meaningful way, what’s the point? So this is not about the technology but about how the tool is used,” says Feinberg.

Lori Fogarty dealt with those questions when, as the executive director of the Oakland Museum of California, she led a campaign to dramatically alter 30,000 square feet of gallery space that had not been touched since 1969. When the doors reopen in May 2010, museumgoers will still be able to view artwork on the wall as they did in the past, but they will also be able to interact with digital components to record their own stories, hear multiple perspectives of a historical event, and create their own portraits to complement what is hanging on the wall.

The transition from a passive to an interactive experience was necessary, Ms. Fogarty says, because “people really have different expectations and desires of museums and don’t necessarily just want to come and look at a wonderful work of art and historic artifact. The interest in the authentic is still very strong, but they want to have a very different kind of museum.”

Phil Hettema knows a lot about these issues. Having worked at Universal Studios Theme Parks Worldwide for more than 10 years, he helped develop projects at theme parks across the United States and Spain. Before that he was a designer at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Earlier this decade, he formed The Hettema Group to bring his expertise to museums, a realm he knew was not without controversy.

“Ten years ago, if you had ‘theme park’ connected with your bio, you were anathema to most museums, because it wasn’t regarded as serious,” says Mr. Hettema. “That has turned 180 degrees. Now, museums are looking for things they can do to bring in an audience and allow them to communicate their story.”

He says his job is to help answer the question: “How do you take all these artifacts and enrich the process?”

At The National World War II Museum, that meant figuring out how to retell the story of the war in a way that was intellectually challenging – informed by the usual facts and biographies of most exhibitions – but also provided a sensory experience meant to let viewers into what it was like to experience a certain event.

Starting five years ago, a group of historians helped Hettema’s creative team draft a story line and decide on source materials for the film for the World War II museum. They ended up using wartime letters and close-up photographs, so that the history was presented from the bottom up.

Then came the “4-D” element. Eight projectors were designed to run concurrently, layering visuals, each cued to the story lines that wrap around the theater. An 18-foot-deep pit houses mechanized props that rise and descend in sync with appropriate moments in the film. They include a concentration camp tower, an antiaircraft gun, the nose cone of a fighter plane, and tank traps. During the film, the seats rumble when tanks approach in the North Africa campaign, and snowflakes fall from the ceiling during the Battle of the Bulge.

“You’re playing with people’s senses throughout the entire experience,” says Bob Farnsworth, senior vice president of Capital Projects, which is overseeing the construction.

Thanks to the involvement of executive producer Tom Hanks, actors such as Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, and Tobey Maguire lent their voices for the letters, and a 100-member symphony orchestra from Warner Bros. provided the music.

Hettema says immersive experiences like The National World War II Museum’s will become more prevalent, mostly because it has been proved that young people can now “process information more quickly” than they may have been capable of in the past.

“So I think being able to create environments that are more compelling and more experiential is well suited for that audience,” he says. “Anytime we can make anything more participatory, I think the storytelling and the educational part becomes more potent.”

The theater’s opening is not the final stage for the museum, either. The new theater is part of an expanded 300,000-acre campus funded by a $300 million campaign.

Four pavilions to explore other dimensions of the war are planned for completion in 2015, making the entire project the first major cultural institution to open in New Orleans since hurricane Katrina in 2005.

For Hettema, the project has an added personal dimension: His father flew in B-17 bombing raids over Germany during the war. Like many veterans, he rarely talked about his experience upon his return to civilian life, and Hettema did not learn the scope of his father’s involvement in the war until 30 years later when he accompanied his father to reunions and met the men with whom he flew.

“Then you multiply that by the millions of guys who had their own experiences, and the scale of it is mind-boggling,” he says.

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