The National Museum of the Marine Corps

Last year at the National Museum of American History I was surprised that the museum decided to call the military action at the turn of the twentieth-century “War of Expansion.” I was not surprised because I felt differently, I was surprised that the nationally excepted (which I think we can safely assume because the museum is a NATIONAL museum) story about the turn of the century wars…you know…accurate. Now they did not make a judgment call, they did not say “this was misguided…we probably should not of done this…” but of course if they said that it might bring up issues about our current wars which is another (very very similar) bag of issues.

So flash forward (backwards?) to this afternoon. I expected to see a lot of pomp and celebratory exhibits about how great the Marines are,have been and forever will be. A place that really supported and protected the idea of the brand of masculinity that comes with marine identity and character. BUT I was surprised, for at least half of the exhibits.

The ones that focused on  (as the Smithsonian called it) the “Wars of Expansion,” tell a story about how American economic, market, and political interests lead to the Spanish-American War,  the Philippines, South America and the like. WHAT! That does not sound so heroic? That sounds like an aggressively violent global policy. The exhibits were, as an undergrad described “a lot of reading,” but if that does not scare you away you would read paragraph length explanations of the events you would find carefully written descriptions of the wars. They explained that the wars were caused by American “envy” over European Empires, or escalated because of “greed” or “pride.” Now, it would be false to say all these terms are used in the same sentence, sign or exhibit, but they are used to describe the reasoning for the use of Marine military force and speak loudly about how we have come to understand these wars…and perhaps give us an idea of what 100 years could do to our understanding of the wars we are in now. Additionally, if you are not into reading..or you know have a “friend” who does not like to read, the paragraphs are surprisingly easy to ignore because there is a lot of gun type-collections, hats, and different kinds of uniforms to distract you.


Like Gas Masks? They got your gas masks right here…Image

The WWII and more recent war exhibits were more in-line with what I expected; celebratory. But no vet wants to go to a museum and made to feel bad about their service. These exhibits had more personal stories and more artifacts (guns, packs, MREs, ect), they were less intended to educate the public about the issues and more there to aid in grandpa’s stories. (ex: “See Tommy Papa used a gun just like that to shoot the bad guys.” “Oh look at this Sally, I had a pack just like that.” “Lil Jimmy look at this photo—I  use to handsome like this guy.” “Marie, come look at the tank Grandpapa drove in Nam.” You get the idea). They also help promote recruitment, these exhibits tell stories about how the Marines helped people, were brave, good, and just. It should be noted that I am not being negative, these are all necessary elements of recruitment and commemoration- however I want to point out the different ways in which the wars were explained and approached.

Marines at Harper’s Ferry…you know John Brown…Image

So on to the dioramas— I don’t see a lot of dioramas used in museums anymore, but wowie were these dioramas great. Life-like wax people running, sweating, making faces, and little tiny scenes of naval battles, forced perception, painted landscape –really nice stuff. If you like dioramas this is the place to be. If overly patriotic versions of military history make you want to pluck your eyes out with the 18th century bayonet, then you’ll be fine here, no worries and if you feel so inclined there ARE bayonets for eye removal… If you want to see a lot of 20th century War paraphernalia, tanks, plains, ect, you will be happy here. If you like seeing Grandparents, again this is the place to go (old men with pin hats..oh ya they are all over the place).

“Ooo finally something for the ladies..”Image

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