Army opens new museum for Veterans Day 2020

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The Army has chosen today, Veterans Day, to open a museum of the U.S. Army. Not reopen, as in pandemic, but cut the ribbon to a stunning new facility at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. For the highlights, the museum’s Chief of Exhibits Paul Morando, and Sgt. James Akinola, visiting soldier and the Army’s soldier of the year, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Morando, good to have you on.

Paul Morando: Good morning.

Tom Temin: And Sergeant Akinola, good to have you on.

Sgt. James Akinola: Good morning, sir.

Tom Temin: Paul, why don’t we start with you. Give us the layout of this museum. I know that starting from the exterior, it is a star architect design building, clad in stainless steel. Walk us through the doors and inside.

Paul Morando: So the building is stunning made of glass and steel. And then as visitors come to the front doors, they are introduced to the soldier’s story pylons. So right away, they’re connected with stories of American soldiers. And that leads into the lobby, where there’s a giant campaign wall that lists all the major campaigns and battles that the army has fought in. And then from there, those pylons lead into the main exhibit wing where all our galleries are located that tells the Army’s story.

Tom Temin: and how extensive are the exhibits that you oversee? How many items are in there, and so on?

Paul Morando: There are over 1,300 artifacts in the museum. Galleries from the first founding the nation, up to changing world, which covers the entire history in the Army. So from 1775 to present day, the stories that are told, the artifacts that are shown reflect that entire history.

Tom Temin: And Sergeant Akinola, when you walk in, does it look authentic to you as a actual soldier in uniform at this time?

Sgt. James Akinola: Oh yeah. Yes sir it does. As soon as I walked in, I was actually taken away by all the artifacts that they have in the museum. And a little piece of history in each exhibit they have.

Tom Temin: And what will you be doing while you’re visiting there? What’s your role there?

Sgt. James Akinola: My role is just I’m just visiting soldiers sir. I won the Army’s best warrior competition for soldiers. And I’ve been invited to just get a look at the museum and check out each exhibit and just see how it affects me and affects my fellow soldiers.

Tom Temin: Got it. And, Paul, when you say that there’s 1,300-1,400 items, I imagine the history of the Army, and everything collected throughout the Army infrastructure, which is worldwide, there must be tens or hundreds of thousands of items. What was the process by which the few that were included in this museum made it to there?

Paul Morando: It was definitely a difficult process, because there’s so many great artifacts and so many great stories within the Army. So we had to to get it down and based on the story that surrounds the objects, right. So a helmet is a helmet, but when it belonged to Sergeant York, for example, it gives power to that artifact, it gives meaning for visitors to learn about, or if it’s a helmet that belong to George Sakato, Japanese American soldier who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his tough fighting during World War Two, that object takes on new meaning. So we wanted objects that tell a powerful story, because we felt that would connect with visitors.

Tom Temin: And what is the treatment of the objects because clearly items that were used in wartime have a patina, sometimes they’re dirty or beat up, or worse. Did you leave them generally in the condition in which they arrived or were they cleaned up? What’s the philosophy for how they’re presented?

Paul Morando: Well, depends on the type of wear and tear that’s on a particular object. So they were professionally conserved it before they were put on display. So first, we want to make sure that the object is protected. However, we did not want to take away that originality or that, whether it’s, you know dirt or grime, or whatever it is, but we made sure to balance that process to first protect the object, but also leave it intact.

Tom Temin: Yeah, because I imagined the dirt from a distant island or what whatever the case might be, is part of the story.

Paul Morando: Absolutely. And when you see that, when a visitor walks through the gallery and sees an artifact, and it has that authenticity, we certainly want to showcase that. However, we want to make sure first and foremost that the object is protected, so it can last forever.

Tom Temin: And Sergeant Akinola, how do you get to be soldier of the year? What do you have to do?

Sgt. James Akinola: So to get to the level to be Army’s soldier of the year yes to compete at numerous competitions. So start at the lowest level at my unit at Moncrief Fort Jackson, or with soldier of the month, then after competing that and winning that soldier of the quarter then soldier of the year, then you get to compete at installation. Then I was invited to compete at the record level which is my Regional Health Command Atlantic. After winning that, I was invited to compete at the MEDCOM level. After winning that I was invited to compete at Army’s Future Command. And then I represented Army Future Command and MEDCOM as the Army’s best warrior. So there’s a lot of tests, both physically and mentally that I had to prepare for, my leaders helped me prepare for it. And when it came to actually competing at the competition, all I had to do was execute.

Tom Temin: Got it. And is shooting at a target part of the competition?

Sgt. James Akinola: Yes. So there were pop up targets that we had to shoot at just to qualify for a marksmanship.

Tom Temin: Got it. Well, I won’t get in your way next time you’re doing some shooting practice, make sure to stay wide there. And Paul getting back to you, besides the exhibits, what will visitors also encounter? Is there the usual museum accoutrements like a gift shop and cafeteria, that kind of thing?

Paul Morando: Yeah, absolutely. We have a gift shop, also a cafe where folks can eat. It has all the standard things that a museum would offer.

Tom Temin: Like MREs maybe? That might be kind of interesting to offer.

Paul Morando: It would, although our cafe has a great variety of food that kind of does play off some of the traditional Army foods that you can find it at the mess hall. But I guarantee you, when eat at the cafe, you’d be very, very happy. The food is absolutely wonderful.

Tom Temin: Because I’ve tried a few MREs and they’re actually not bad. I don’t want to eat them every day for a year, but a couple times they’re not too bad. And this museum is jointly operated, correct? I mean, you’ve got the US Army itself involved, but also the US Army Foundation.

Paul Morando: Correct. So the Army Historical Foundation funded the actual construction of the building. And they are responsible for the profit areas like the cafe, like the gift shop, like the simulators, the Army Action Center. So yes, it’s a great partnership with the Army and the Army Historical Foundation to run this museum.

Tom Temin: And for those that want to visit it is on Fort Belvoir, but it’s not something you have to go through gates and security to get to?

Paul Morando: That’s correct. So there’s no gate or security to pass through. And it’s free and open to the public. You need to go to our website to get a ticket. That’s the thenmusa.org to get a time ticket in order to enter the museum.

Tom Temin: And what are the normal hours once we’re past the opening day?

Paul Morando: It will be seven days a week from 9am to 5pm.

Tom Temin: Alright. So I guess was a good day’s travel, you could hit the Army Museum and the Marine Corps Museum and a couple of others all within probably a 50-60 mile radius.

Paul Morando: That’s correct. And also Mount Vernon as well. So we partnered with those museums to become a destination point for this area.

Tom Temin: Got it. Well good luck on the opening. Paul Morando is chief of exhibits at the new National Museum of the US Army opening today at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Thank you so much for joining me.

Paul Morando: Thank you. It’s been great talking to you.

Tom Temin: And we also heard from Sergeant James Akinola, a visiting soldier today and the Army soldier of the year. Nice speaking with you as well.

Sgt. James Akinola: Thank you sir. It’s been a pleasure.

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