Memory and Understanding

The past, present, and future of The National WWII Museum's collection of oral histories. 

Oral histories are the foundation of the history that The National WWII Museum conveys to the public, both as a bricks-and-mortar campus and in its plans to extend its educational mission in both online and traditional museum programming. As of January 17, 2017, the museum’s collection held a total of 9,139 individual personal accounts, defined as accounts in which a clear personal voice conveys a story, through either a written account (including unpublished diaries, journals, and memoirs) or an oral history (including video recordings, audio recordings, and transcripts). The museum is continuing to add oral histories to the collection through active collecting strategies, and sees opportunities to continue to add personal accounts and oral histories in the future after the passing of the WWII generation. 

Development of the Oral History Collection

The development and importance of the oral-history collection, and use of the personal voice in our narrative stories, predates The National WWII Museum and its predecessor, The National D-Day Museum. The oral-history collection began through the efforts of the late Stephen E. Ambrose, PhD, when he was a professor of history at the University of New Orleans (UNO). A noted biographer of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ambrose began in the 1980s to seek out the personal accounts of combat soldiers in the European campaigns that Eisenhower led. His focus was on the experiences of the ordinary citizens who took on the task of fighting in the front lines as common soldiers. 

Ambrose conducted oral histories personally, using an audiocassette recorder, and often simply sitting with a veteran or a group of veterans in a freewheeling discussion at his or their home. To extend his collecting reach, Ambrose took out newspaper advertisements in cities around the country, asking WWII veterans to record their own oral histories on audiotape or write their experiences out in transcript form and mail them to Ambrose. In addition, veterans also began to send Ambrose personal artifacts, including helmets, assorted military equipment, and even a rare and valuable Norden bomb site. 

The voices of these common men in combat were featured in the best-selling books that Ambrose wrote during the 1990s, including D-Day, Band of Brothers, and Citizen Soldiers (among others). The popularity of the books with the general public was attributed in part to the prominent personal testimony to events by the new, personal voices that Ambrose had collected. But even before these books were published, Ambrose had already begun to consider what to do with his growing collection of oral histories and artifacts. Impressed by the stories of extraordinary acts taken on by ordinary Americans during the war, he realized that the men and women who had saved the free world from Nazi Germany did not even have a museum dedicated to their achievements in the United States. 

The genesis of The National WWII Museum took place in 1990 in Stephen Ambrose’s backyard in New Orleans. Ambrose and his best friend and fellow historian at UNO, Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, PhD, were sitting in a gazebo drinking sherry when the men decided that they would spearhead the effort to build a museum dedicated to the veterans who had landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944. They decided that New Orleans would be the perfect place to locate the museum: it was there that a local boatbuilder named Andrew Jackson Higgins had made the amphibious landings possible when he ingeniously solved the military problem of how to land on a hostile enemy-held beach, adopting the flat-bottomed boats used in the swamps of Louisiana by the oil industry to become military landing craft.  

In spite of many obstacles, Ambrose and Mueller succeeded in opening The National D-Day Museum in New Orleans on June 6, 2000. Given that Americans from across the entire country participated in the Normandy landings, they believed that a national designation was appropriate for the museum, rather than a state or local designation. Oral histories were part of the original permanent exhibit galleries that told the story of the D-Day landings at Normandy—the preparation, the events of June 6, 1944, and the ultimate aftermath of the landings as Nazi Germany was defeated. In these original galleries, oral histories were presented in listening stations or booths. These were often physically enclosed by glass or wooden partitions in a larger gallery space, with benches where visitors could sit and listen to the oral history. All of these oral histories were audiotape recordings. A still photograph of the subject (some veterans, some civilians) would allow the visitor to identify the speaker, and by pressing a button next to the photo the audio recording would begin to play in the booth, usually playing a story clip that would last approximately one to two minutes. In some booths, a video monitor might play alongside the oral history. However, these videos were created with B-roll footage edited to visually fit and accompany the story being heard. Video imagery of the person speaking, telling their story for the recording, was not displayed (although portrait photographs of the speaker from the 1940s might be used with the B-roll if available). 

 

After The National D-Day Museum opened in 2000, the management of the Museum was inundated with feedback from WWII veterans who noted that the Museum’s true subject was the Normandy landings in France, not D-Day as the veterans understood the term. For in truth, there were many D-Days that the US military participated in around the world, not only in France, but in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy in the Mediterranean, and in hundreds of landings across the Pacific in the war against Japan. In late 2001, the museum opened a new set of permanent exhibit galleries dedicated to telling the story of the war in the Pacific, and again oral histories were featured in the exhibits, in the same formats that had been previously used in the Normandy exhibits. 

It should be noted that the impact of technology on oral-history practices was tremendous during this time period. This author can attest to these changes through personal experience, as he worked at a television station in the late 1980s and early 1990s as an audio technician. At that time, it was common to record and rerecord audio tracks as needed on audiocassette tapes of various formats. However, because of the restricted opportunities to play or broadcast recordings in the pre-Internet age, the tape recording was not necessarily seen as a valuable thing in and of itself. This was true of how Ambrose used and treated the audiotapes that he received from veterans or recorded himself. What was considered valuable was the story on the tape, which Ambrose had his students at the University of New Orleans transcribe. The written transcripts he then used in writing his books. The transcript was the desired end product from his initial point of view; once transcribed, the tape with the voice on it was not necessarily considered valuable. 

However, the digital revolution that began in the 1990s was changing all of that by the time The National D-Day Museum opened in 2000. The Internet opened up audio and video recording for broadcast and transmission to virtually anyone, not just television stations and networks. Costs of recording equipment were greatly reduced, and allowed members of the public to engage with making their own recordings of audiovisual material. The quality of audiovisual recordings was also vastly improved by high-definition digital recording, and digital and computer technology allowed for old recordings on different technologies to be cleaned up and improved. What the digital revolution meant for oral-history recordings was that these could now be more easily recorded by the public, that they could be accessed and delivered via the Internet, and that new uses were available for old recordings (i.e., the voices on the audiocassettes were now valuable in and of themselves, not just for the stories they told that were transcribed into written works or documents). For the future, videotape-recorded oral histories would not only reap benefits from all of these trends, but would become the most impactful and creative form of oral-history storytelling. 

By the time of his death in October 2002, Ambrose had acquired a collection of over 600 oral histories with WWII veterans on either audiotape or written transcripts. The interviews are housed in the museum today as the Ambrose collection, and recognized as the foundation of the museum’s oral-history collection. In the past few years, the museum has committed to preserving this collection by digitally capturing the audiocassette recordings, and making arrangements for the permanent storage and preservation of these materials. The digital preservation of the Ambrose collection was handled by the media preservation firm George Blood L.P., while the information-management firm Iron Mountain is working with the museum on the long-term storage and preservation of the Ambrose collection.

The Origins of The National WWII Museum 

While Stephen Ambrose lived to see The National D-Day Museum launched and donated his oral history collection to the institution, tremendous changes and challenges took place in the wake of his passing that would have great implications for the future of the museum and the oral history collection itself. Under the leadership of Ambrose’s dear friend, Nick Mueller, vast expanses of the museum campus and its oral-history collecting efforts would soon take shape.

The initiative for these expansions actually occurred on the day before The National D-Day Museum was opened on June 5, 2000, when Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), himself a WWII veteran who had served in the China-Burma-India theater, was given a preview tour of the galleries. Stevens told Ambrose and Mueller that he was impressed by their efforts, but disappointed that “his war” was not included. He urged them to consider expanding their efforts to cover the entire American experience in World War II, and offered to help. Together with his colleague Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), another WWII veteran and a Medal of Honor recipient who had served in Italy, Stevens guided a resolution through Congress that in 2004 designated the museum in New Orleans as the nation’s official museum dedicated to telling the story of our national experience during World War II, and greatly expanded its mission.

The mission of The National WWII Museum is to tell the story of the American experience in the war that changed the world—why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today—so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn. The new mission reflected tremendous intellectual and historical territory that the museum would have to convey to its visitors. It placed the American role in the largest war in world history in a complete context which would allow the general public to understand why and how such a global catastrophic event developed, what it took for the Allied powers to win on the battlefield and the tremendous carnage that was wreaked, and the lasting legacy of the war and how it has shaped our modern world today. 

With the new mission came a new master plan for the physical expansion of the museum and its campus. The design firm Gallagher & Associates was hired to develop exhibits and galleries where the themes and story components embodied in the mission statement would form a comprehensive narrative arc in a series of pavilions across the campus. The master plan for the museum’s capital expansion campaign was presented to the Museum’s management in June 2005 and formally approved. 

But a number of challenges and problems arose to be surmounted after the heady days of June 2005 when the master plan was launched. For the Museum, perhaps the biggest challenge to hit came two months later in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Katrina’s aftermath placed the future of the Museum and the city itself in jeopardy, forcing the management to look for ways to keep the Museum financially viable while visitation to the Museum collapsed along with tourism to New Orleans. It is important to mention here that elements of the Museum’s grand strategy for outreach to people outside of New Orleans who will never visit the physical campus (i.e., initiatives involving online education and outreach, which carried implications for the oral-history collection) were developed as part of the response to Katrina’s challenges.

Oral History Collecting Strategy

With the adoption of the master plan for expansion came a new strategy for the museum’s Research Department for the collection of oral histories. A small collecting program with a few staff historians had collected oral histories after the opening of The National D-Day Museum in 2000, including some of the first video oral histories, although uniform practices regarding audio, video, and tape formats were not maintained. Beginning in 2005, more uniform practices were adopted, and additional staff historians were hired to operate within a “directed collecting” strategy going forward. Directed collecting meant that the staff would identify and target individuals whose stories would support the specific content for the exhibit galleries outlined in the master plan, and pursue obtaining oral histories with them. 

Budget and financial resources were deepened to pursue directed-collecting acquisitions. The museum has a small recording studio, where interviews can be recorded on the premises. However, most of the directed collecting strategy involved a historian on staff traveling to an interview subject’s home, and conducting the interview there. This practice has proven to have several advantages, mainly that the elderly veteran does not have to travel, and is almost always most comfortable being interviewed in his or her home, where the historian can hopefully build an atmosphere of trust and intimacy during the interview that will allow the subject’s feelings to emerge when talking about deeply emotional topics, sometimes long buried in the past.
The basic components that must be budgeted for an oral historian working in the Research Department at the museum (not including salary and benefits) center on equipment and travel expenditures. For video recording, the museum supplies each historian with a high-definition video camera and all accessories, including microphones, batteries, tapes, and a tripod, plus travel cases for this equipment. In addition, the museum supplies each historian with a laptop computer and a scanner to make electronic copies of photographs or any other documents that the veteran might be willing to share during the interview process. 

The key to building a collecting trip by a historian is to leverage costs by getting as many interviews within a city or geographic area as possible. For example, expenses on a given trip to a city or destination will include air fare to the destination, a rental car to travel between interviews, hotel (possibly multiple hotels depending upon logistics), and meals (historians use the per diem rates established by the federal government for employee travel). Other costs may occur: parking for staff at the airport in New Orleans is usually a given, but tolls and parking costs at the destination may also occur. The average cost goal for a trip is approximately $300 per oral history acquired. For example, if a historian submits a trip requisition for approval to collect interviews in Memphis for $1,500 total, the goal would be to collect at least five oral histories on the trip.

Sometimes exceptions are made to the general process. For example, if an interview subject is deemed sufficiently important, trips may be approved to obtain a single interview in an expeditious time regardless of the cost, and sometimes a senior historian on the staff will conduct these VIP interviews. Recent examples of this include oral history interviews with Dr. Kenneth Arrow, a WWII veteran and Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Dr. Richard Pipes, who escaped Poland as a teenager after witnessing the Nazi destruction of Warsaw, served in the US Army during the war, and later became a noted historian of Russia at Harvard University.

When hiring new staff historians, managers in the department conduct phone interviews with prospective job candidates, and then email them a written pre-test designed to test their knowledge of WWII history and their research abilities before personal interviews are conducted. At the time of this writing, the museum employed six staff historians whose primary duties included collecting oral histories in the field. All of the staff historians are college graduates, and half of them hold a master’s degree in history. Staff historians develop interview trips by following up with leads from a variety of sources, including ongoing visitor lists, department files, tips, and most importantly by asking for other leads from the veterans they interview. 

The historians are expected to follow established processes and procedures as they develop collection trips. The first step is always to make contact with the veteran, and a phone interview must be conducted as the first step. There are several objectives for the phone interview. First is setting up details for the interview, the when, where, and other details that need to be taken into account. Second, however, the phone interview is an opportunity for the historian to get a feel for how the veteran may tell the story—is this person animated? How detailed are the subject’s memories, and how sharply is she or he able to convey stories in conversation? Finally, the phone interview allows the historian to probe more deeply into the veteran’s personal story and memories against the larger historical record. After the phone interview, the historian will do research into the major events the veteran witnessed or experienced, and can check the veteran’s story against unit histories, oral histories in the collection, and other resources to make certain that the veteran’s story is consistent with the historical record.

 

After the phone interview, the historian will send an appearance release form which gives the museum ownership of the oral history. Interviewees must sign and return the appearance release before the historian will be allowed to book travel arrangements by management. The appearance release gives the museum legal ownership of the recorded oral history tapes and their content only. The veteran still has rights to his or her story, and is free to develop the story into other commercial forms, such as a movie or book, but the museum has ownership rights to the tapes and interview which our historian conducts with the subject.

Once the historian has received the signed appearance release and confirmed interview arrangements with the subjects, the historian can work on logistical details for the trip, including booking airline tickets, rental car, and hotel reservations. But even once these arrangements have been made, many problems can unexpectedly emerge for the historians as they travel to conduct the interviews.


Challenges of Collecting Oral Histories of WWII Veterans

Perhaps the biggest overarching challenge the museum has faced in building its oral history collection with WWII veterans and witnesses is the demographic reality that time is against us. The WWII generation was known for not talking about or sharing their experiences in war for decades afterward. It was only when President Ronald Reagan went to Normandy in 1984 for the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings that public interest was stimulated, and the veterans became more comfortable with discussing their wartime experiences. Stephen Ambrose helped promote these trends with his books. However, it should be noted that even in the 1980s, the average age of WWII veterans was in their 60s. By the time the museum committed to expanding resources for collecting interviews and the directed collecting strategy to support the museum’s master plan in 2005, this meant that a 20-year-old veteran in the military when the war ended in 1945 was 80 years old, and if a veteran had served in the early years of the war it was more likely that he or she was in their mid- to latter 80s. 

In 2017, a dozen years later, this challenge is even starker. Two weeks before this article was submitted, this author had a conversation with a writer who is working on a book about the Nuremberg trials. After she asked about finding prosecutors from the trial to interview, I explained to her that this would be a very difficult task, as a freshly minted 25-year-old lawyer in 1945 would today be 97 years old, and the reality was that most of the prosecutors at Nuremberg were already well-established attorneys who were in their 30s or older at the time. The Veteran’s Administration today estimates that out of 16 million Americans who served in the military in World War II, only approximately 620,000 remain with us, and an average of 372 veterans pass away every day. 

The reality today is that the youngest WWII veterans are at least 90 years of age, many in their mid- to latter 90s, and this presents special challenges for the museum’s historians. In particular, staff historians must be aware of possible health issues with potential interview subjects, including memory loss, Alzheimer’s, and other illnesses that could affect an interview.

The Research Department has implemented policies for the historians to follow that have effectively helped to deal with these issues on the front end of the process. One of the most important of these is the previously mentioned phone interview with the veteran himself or herself, required before the actual videotaped oral history takes place. Children of veterans often contact the museum requesting an immediate oral history with their parent, but unfortunately this request is often made under the emotional strain of dealing with a dying parent, or they may not disclose that the parent has Alzheimer’s disease or other memory issues. The phone interview with the veteran not only allows the historian to gauge how animated the subject will be, but to subtly judge whether the subject is strong and coherent enough for the interview.

While historians do conduct interviews with able-minded and able-bodied subjects in nursing homes, the Research Department enforces a policy against conducting deathbed interviews, interviews in hospital beds, or in hospital surroundings. Our policy is that if a veteran is under hospital care, then it is better for the veteran and the family to focus on recovery, and to schedule interviews at a later and more convenient date. Our goal is to collect oral histories that will convey respect for the veteran when future viewers see it, and to respect the fact that the interviews are often valuable memories of a loved one to the veteran’s family. The museum provides DVD copies of the interviews to the veteran for their personal use and to share with their family.

For the historians, issues of sudden death and severe illness are simply accepted realities of the work they are performing. The historians work to fill out their calendars with trips scheduled usually two to three months in advance. So after contacting and scheduling interviews two months prior, the historians will usually circle back and contact the veterans again shortly before they travel to confirm that the interview is still on. This practice has practical benefits. Besides being a simple reminder for the veteran after a few weeks, there have been numerous occasions where unfortunately the historian is informed that the subject suddenly passed away since the interview was scheduled, or that a spouse may be ill or have passed, and the veteran needs to postpone the interview in order to deal with their family obligations. If a historian is aware at the last moment that an interview on a trip will not take place, the historian will attempt to fill that interview slot as best as he or she can. At the least, the historian can use that time for research or other productive work in the field, such as making contact with local organizations that might generate more leads and another trip to the region or city.
While issues concerning mortality or serious illness rise to the top of possible complications for historians collecting oral histories in the field, other problems with veterans can arise with interviews where the recording session goes forward as planned. 

Probably the most common problem is when a veteran makes statements in an interview that the historian may know to be untrue (and can often demonstrate this due to prior research). Each case is unique, as we have encountered situations that have ranged from outright untruths to cases in which embellishment or faulty memories are more likely. The historians in the field are expected to handle these situations tactfully while conducting interviews. They are expected to allow the veteran to tell their personal story, in their own words and narrative, without judgment or correction in the recording session. In cases where the historian has serious doubts about the veracity of an account, however, upon returning to the museum the historian will include these issues in their written notes and reports that go into each oral history file that the museum keeps. Fortunately, situations involving outright fraud or lying by an interview subject (such as a veteran falsely claiming to have landed with the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day) have been rare.

 

However, other serious issues beyond factual veracity may arise with a veteran’s interview precisely because the statements are true, but might be embarrassing to the veteran’s family. This is not uncommon with older men being asked to relive their youth, in a time of war in distant places with people they have not seen since. One such instance occurred when a veteran began discussing, without prompting and in graphic detail, his relations with prostitutes across Europe during the war. While this subject matter is a legitimate topic to be recorded, as part of the factual, medical, and cultural legacy of the war and the individual’s personal narrative, the veteran’s family asked the museum to cut this section from the interview after they received copies of the interview. In this case, the museum complied with the request.

More troublesome issues that have arisen during interviews, however, involve the realities of wartime violence and its legacies. Museum historians have encountered situations where a veteran has stated that he feared that the information he was discussing might be considered war crimes by modern audiences unfamiliar with the realities of combat during World War II. That a veteran would willingly discuss his moral issues and conscience on tape with a museum historian is a telling sign of how an intimate relationship with the historian can be established during an interview, and from a humanistic point of view it is a priceless testimonial to the trials and tribulations which those who endured total war carry with them to this day. 

But probably the most troubling issue for our 21st-century world that our historians have asked WWII veterans to discuss is their experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The term PTSD was not commonly used at the time, and the popular imagery or memory of the ending of World War II is that of returning veterans reuniting with their loved ones and beginning a Baby Boom and postwar prosperity. Members of the WWII generation famously did not discuss their experiences even with their closest family and loved ones for decades after the war. But the popular imagery is far from reality for many WWII veterans, and bringing their stories to light through the oral history collection has been a great positive contribution not only to the historical record of the war, but also to veterans who have experienced America’s wars in the Middle East today. The museum recently acquired an oral history with a 93-year-old WWII veteran who today counsels young veterans with PTSD. However, perhaps one of the most impactful oral histories that the museum has ever acquired is one with Dominic Martello, who served in North Africa in World War II, and suffered a PTSD episode on camera while being interviewed by a museum historian. Martello’s oral history interview is available to the public online (more on this effort to be discussed), and is featured in our Road to Berlin permanent galleries. Martello’s oral history is but one example, but staff historians can cite dozens of interviews they have done that illustrate not only how their personal interactions with WWII veterans have given them motivation and insight into their own life struggles, but how important the work they perform in capturing oral histories is for the public to understand our own times, and the sacrifices that were made by these Americans for our own sake today. 

Placed in that light, the other common problems and inconveniences which accompany our historians as they work to collect oral histories in the field (including excess baggage with airlines, early departure flights, canceled flights, faulty GPS systems in rental cars, cameras broken in transit, traffic jams in unfamiliar cities, fast food in the car, late meals in unfamiliar hotels, intruding pets, incorrect Wi-Fi codes, and so on) are easily put into focus and perspective against our mission. Seth Paridon, our former Manager of Research Services who is now Digital Content Manager in the Museum’s new Media and Education Center, has often repeated a quote to our staff that he says always motivates him: “They gave all of their tomorrows for our todays.” 

So with the day approaching when none of America’s WWII veterans will be with us to personally provide their testimony, what other steps is The National WWII Museum taking to bring their stories and the history of the war to the public?

Sharing the Stories with the Public

Beyond the oral histories that the museum has collected, from Stephen Ambrose’s initial collection to donated collections and the directed collecting program, the museum believes that much rich oral-history content from the war remains to be uncovered in the attics, closets, and garages of the veterans, including “orphaned” oral history collections. These orphaned collections might include single interviews done by family members; written journals, diaries, and memoirs still held by veterans in their homes; long-forgotten projects of interviews collected on various defunct technologies (audiotapes, VHS tapes, Beta tapes, minidisks) that will need a home for preservation in the future. The museum hopes to be a repository of these collections by raising public awareness and asking the children and grandchildren of the WWII generation to donate these findings to the museum.
The directed collecting efforts of the museum will continue, albeit likely on a diminished scale. The Museum recognizes that the ongoing memorialization, interpretation, and historiography of World War II will continue for the long-range future. The children of the veterans will hold firsthand testimony of the impact of the war upon their parents, and thus promise to be a valuable potential source for illuminating future interviews. Other oral-history interviews of value will be with those who continue to shape the modern memory of World War II for the public, including historians, writers, documentary producers, filmmakers, novelists, politicians, artists, museum professionals, and other scholars and keepers of cultural and historical memory.

It was Stephen Ambrose’s motivating spirit to bring great history alive to wide public audiences. In his last book, he wrote: “One of the things I like most about the museum is its ability to reach out to the young and inform them of who went before them, and what they owe to them. Museums that commemorate events of a half-century or less ago pull the generations together.” The museum’s ongoing contribution to keeping this history alive, and bringing it forward to the public and making it evergreen for future generations will be focused on two main areas. 

First will be online access to our digital collections. The museum has committed to a 10-year, $11 million plan to publish our oral-history collection online. The digitization process includes not only the digital capture of a video oral history, but also will make the complete interview (interviews in the collection range from 20 minutes to over eight hours, but the average interview is two and a half hours) searchable online with annotation and transcriptions accompanying the video. This packaged format presents the oral history videos not only in a curated format (annotation) to the public, but also serves as a repository through textual transcription and the viewer’s ability to watch and hear the interview. To date, the museum has posted approximately 240 oral histories online, with a goal of increasing that number to 400 in the near future (please see http://www.ww2online.org). The digitization of the oral-history and other collections will be used to support further museum programming initiatives, including our travel, symposia, conferences, online educational initiatives, and initiatives that will emerge from the museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. Bringing digital access to the museum’s collection to untold numbers of people around the world who will never set foot in New Orleans would no doubt bring a smile to Stephen Ambrose. As his collaborator and cofounder Nick Mueller stated in a tribute to his friend, “(Ambrose) was a biographer who loved to retell the stories of presidents, generals and senators, as well as the stories of citizen soldiers—in their own words.”   

But for museum visitors to the campus in New Orleans, the use of the oral-history collection can be most prominently seen in the permanent exhibit galleries that tell the American experience in World War II. In June 2017, our The Arsenal of Democracy permanent exhibits opened, telling the story of why the war was fought. Completed in 2015, our Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo galleries in the Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters pavilion tell the middle part of our mission, how the war was won. Finally, plans are underway to develop and build the Liberation Pavilion by 2020, which will complete our mission to explain the legacy of the war in our modern world. 

Oral histories are deeply embedded throughout these exhibits to support the overarching narrative storyline. Where appropriate, quotes from oral histories have been painted onto gallery walls to illustrate key experiences (such as in the Air War gallery in Road to Berlin), or embedded into narrated videos (such as in the intro video projection in the Guadalcanal gallery in Road to Tokyo, where the voices of four veterans are used). Oral histories are located in War Station kiosks in the galleries, where visitors can select and listen to professionally edited, narrated clips (usually in the range of 90 seconds to two minutes long) of oral histories. The Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo galleries together feature 120 oral history clips. Another 50 oral histories can be found in six oral-history listening stations in our US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, and another dozen oral histories from crew members are embedded in the kiosks that support programming for the aircraft hanging from the ceiling in that pavilion. In our The Arsenal of Democracy galleries opened in June 2017, another 60 oral-history clips will be embedded.

Plans for the Liberation Pavilion will no doubt include oral histories embedded in gallery kiosks and featured video productions as well, although that work today is in a conceptual stage and detailed numbers remain to be determined. But the museum’s commitment to oral-history testimonies is firm. From the beginning, oral histories were embedded in the D-Day galleries when the museum first opened in 2000, in the Pacific war galleries opened in 2001 (now closed), included in our 4D feature film experience Beyond All Boundaries in 2009, and integral to the two major pavilions and the three permanent exhibit galleries completed in June 2017. Even when our capital expansion plans are completed with the Liberation Pavilion, oral histories will no doubt continue to be at the heart of Museum programming efforts far beyond 2020. For the truth is that oral histories have been at the heart of this institution from before the time that Stephen Ambrose and Nick Mueller struck upon the idea of starting a history museum over drinks in a backyard. Oral histories have been in every major evolution of that idea as it has transformed into The National WWII Museum today, and the continued use of oral histories will promote the memory and understanding of World War II and the people who lived it for many future generations to come. 

This article appeared in Vol. 13, No. 2 (2017) of Collections: A Journal for Museum & Archives Professionals, Edited by Juilee Decker. © Rowman & Littlefield. To see the article online, visit this link. For this post, the article has been updated to reflect changes at the Museum since its publication. 

Contributor

Keith Huxen

Keith Huxen, PhD, is the Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII...
Learn More