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Navigating The National World War II Museum

Learn about The National World War II Museum and plan your trip, whether you have only a couple hours or a full day.

The newest exhibit at the National WWII Museum is The Road to Tokyo, focusing on the war in the Pacific theater.

Our faces turned towards the surface, and the thick darkness came to surround my fellow shipmates and me. The explosion had shocked us all; moments before, our mission had been going according to plan.

We’d sliced through the water efficiently, following the directives of our commander. The missiles from our submarine had hit their targets, and the burning of the enemy ships lit up the night sky. But something had gone wrong, and now we were sinking, the once-flashing lights of our vessel now dead. Our final mission was complete.

If this museum has a thesis, it’s that WWII helped shape modern America.

American flags inside The National World War II Museum. (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

What first strikes any visitor to the National World War II Museum is its immersive nature. Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience, an interactive, simulated recreation of the last days of the famous U.S. sub that sank 33 enemy vessels, is just one example of how that plays out in the museum.

There’s also Beyond All Boundaries, the famous, award-winning 4-D short film produced and narrated by Tom Hanks, which through a barrage of stimuli attempts to represent the complex web of war. I had heard a great deal about the film, and it left me stunned — it’s definitely not to be missed.

In fact, the entire museum and its vast breadth of content is worth exploring in depth.

An immersive trip into the Himalayas as part of the Campaigns of Courage exhibit. (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

Exhibits at a Glance

The Freedom Pavilion. (Photo: Christopher Garland)

The sense of immersion at the National World War II Museum comes through in all the details that make up the museum, from the micro to the macro: an autographed photograph of the Japanese surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri (the ship named to honor the home state of President Truman); display cases featuring the minutiae American soldiers carried to war (including, for example, foreign language phrase books); the Oral History Database, where one can watch and listen to veterans talk about their WWII service; the large touch screens in the U.S. Freedom Pavilion that allow you to explore all the angles of various warplanes; the traveling exhibit, “Fighting for the Right to Fight,” which focuses on the role of African Americans in the war and their struggle for racial equality in the military; the over 19,000 square feet of exhibit space in the Campaigns of Courage Pavilion, where one floor is dedicated to the the Allies’ Road to Berlin while another focuses on the Pacific theatre of war with the Road to Tokyo.

A recreation of the island palm jungles of Guadalcanal, off the northeast coast of Australia in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where the first amphibious landing of WWII occurred. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

The sheer ambition of the National World War II Museum is undeniable: it’s a clearcut attempt to capture the American experience of a war that spread out across the globe and altered the course of humankind. Moreover, the word “national” is very important in regards to the design and execution of the museum.

If this museum has a thesis, it’s that WWII helped shape modern America. A bloody, international rupture that left European and Asian metropolises flattened and tens of millions dead is tied to many aspects of change in America during the twentieth century: industrialization and the growth of American cities; the Civil Rights movement; the place of women in the workplace; and, ultimately, this country’s connection to other nations around the world. The museum reflects much of WWII’s effects on those social and economic dynamics.

But there’s also an important New Orleans factor: the museum is located in this city because of Andrew Higgins, a man who Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower once called “the man who won the war for us.”

Andrew Higgins. (Photo via New Orleans Public Library)

Higgins, a local industrialist, and his 30,000 employees here in New Orleans built more than 20,000 “Higgins boats“—the vessels that took American troops to shore in every single amphibious assault during World War II.

Andrew Higgins’ treasures inside the National World War II Museum. (Photo via Flickr user Connie Ma)

There’s a gallery space in the museum dedicated to Higgins and his company’s creation, and it is a powerful testament to the American ingenuity that was so integral to defeating the Axis powers.

So, with a place that offers so much, how do you “do” the museum? Michelle Moore, the public relations manager for the museum, says that the museum was created to “enable visitors to delve deep into an issue or glean the overall picture based on their preference.”

Quite simply, a museum guest could still have a deep and moving experience through the Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo alone, but you could also tackle the whole museum, including, for example, meeting with curators who “lead a program on the uniforms and equipment used by American and German soldiers during World War II,” Moore says. On one of my visits to the museum, I even was allowed to try on several items — the American gas mask was a personal favorite.

National World War II Museum Itineraries

If you have 1.5 hours

If you only have 1.5 hours to spend at the museum, I would suggest that you pick either the Road to Berlin or The Road to Tokyo. You can take your time in either of these dense, nuanced exhibitions, and you will then have time left to take a quick stroll over to the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center to check out the bombers and airplanes that are suspended over a beautiful indoor space.

A look inside the new “Road to Tokyo” exhibit. (Photo courtesy of The National World War II Museum)

If you have 2.5 to 3 hours

With 2.5 to 3 hours, you have more options. I would advise that you start with the exhibition that helps explain the origins of World War II and includes the aforementioned Higgins gallery, where you can see numerous documents, photographs, and other items that pertain to roots of the Higgins boat in NOLA.

Then, if you book your ticket in advance, you could check out one of the two multi-sensory exhibits: The Final Mission or the longer Beyond All Boundaries. They are very different exhibits, so this might be where your personal preference comes in: are you most interested in the specific account of the legendary USS Tang? Or are you more intrigued by an immersive conceptualization of total war?

Real planes hang from the ceiling inside the main entrance of The National WWII Museum. (Photo via Flickr user Jeff Terrell)

You’ll also have time on the way out to check out the The Soda Shop, where you can indulge in a classic American milkshake.

If you have all day (and then some)

I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have a preference: this is the best way to do it. Even if you can’t do it all on one day, for $6 more you can come back the following day and check out what you missed the first time through.

Explore the fascinating history of the Pacific theaters of World War II at the new Road to Tokyo galleries at the National WWII Museum in downtown New Orleans. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

You can take time to peruse all the exhibits and activities:

Should you take advantage of the $6 followup day, you can also add a Stage Door Canteen show to your itinerary. The theater features a weekly series of ’40s-inspired entertainment, showcasing the songs, style, stars, and spirit of the era. Select shows even offer brunch or dinner as part of the experience.

Inside The American Sector restaurant. (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

What’s more, there’s also a fantastic way to wrap up your day: The American Sector, a spacious bar and restaurant that has one of the best happy hours in the Central Business District. The American Sector, which is helmed by executive chef Eric Cook, draws on locally grown vegetables (including those from the next door “Victory Garden”) and meats and has all-American staples such as the shrimp and grits and the roasted chicken and biscuits.

Happy hour drinks at American Sector. (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

Christopher Garland lives in the Lower Garden District, where he enjoys evening strolls, happy-hour beer, and close proximity to the basketball court at the corner of Magazine and Napoleon. An Assistant Professor of Writing, Christopher reads and writes for work and pleasure. Find him on Instagram, @cjgarland12.

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