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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.

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

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“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.