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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.