- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
From a suspiciously well-informed “Unicorn“:
First the Army doesn’t actually own enough in the way of museum worthy artifacts to fill a central museum even if one were to be built. Most of the nation’s preserved history at arms was accomplished by the far larger militia in whose states that history was and is preserved (see for examples the Ohio Historical Society or the New York 69th ).
With the exception of the West Point teaching museum (on the old Ladycliff campus) the central Army and its general staff actually have very little in the way of artifacts. What does exist in the 1/3 of the Army that is active is: a) mostly WWII or after and that b) firmly in the hands of fort, camp and station museums that are 501 C3 outfits which have been in existence for years and have become part of the local communities’ tourism base, as well as touchstones to unit identity (see for example the Airborne Museum). Over the decades of dreaming of a super army central museum there have been more than a few attempts by the Army general staff to gather “their” collection by demanding those “local” collections be made available for the to be built central facility. The reactions were predictable: “hell no” is a fair summary of those responses.
What the active Army does have is a large collection of art, mostly bad, all WWII and some after (including a vast store of really, really bad Nazi art ironically preserved aside Norman Rockwell pieces) that never sees the light of day. They are so protective of it that whenever a senior general or civilian asks for some to decorate their offices, it is supplied, but as a very expensive on cardboard fake (see the portraits of the former Army Secretaries and Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon – all are on card board fakes – the real “art” is in secure storage. The explanation for this is to prevent any of it being harmed should the Pentagon be attacked again. In case you were wondering, it is all housed in a high rise and high rent building in downtown DC just off of K Street. Go figure.
Second, the history of the many aborted sites for this central museum could be a novel in itself. In spite of a wealth of evidence that large scale museums only thrive (generating visitor traffic sufficient to cover the huge cost of a big central facility) when they are near other tourist attractions, making them part of a “destination experience” (see Disneyland), the Army has always tried to find out of the way places far from other things. This is best exemplified by the location of the moment – in the middle of Ft Belvoir, a place where even the local county commissioners say there is so much traffic it is impossible to get to, and there is zero else to do nearby making it a most UNdestination experience for tourists.
The previously aborted sites (the Mall, the Marriot Twin Bridges etc) each have their own sad tales; the current location was selected after the Army declined the opportunity to obtain for ONE DOLLAR the southern half of the Washington Navy Yard (then empty). Completely build out ready, this huge site had acres of land to build on, to parade, river front access for ducks etc, located adjacent the Navy’s National Museum, close to two interstate highways, a Metro stop at the front door, the Capital barely 5,000 feet away, etc, etc. In short, this was a museum location of unbelievable potential. Instead the Army general staff convinced Louis Caldera and his Chief to trade that site for something at Belvoir (with John Warner in exchange his support) for several Stryker brigades that the Army was going to get anyway. You can’t make this stuff up.