TRIANGLE, Va. ? The National Museum of the Marine Corps juts across the sky like the flag raised at Iwo Jima, with its steel spire buttressed like the upraised arms of Marines atop Mount Suribachi.
The architecture is also reminiscent of an artillery gun, a rifle bayonet, a sword or the prow of a ship the first Marines fought from during the American Revolution.
Inside the circular walls of the museum, galleries reach back through more than 230 years of Marine Corps history, across the shores of Tripoli to the landing on Peleliu and more.
Before the national museum opened in November 2006, smaller exhibits on Marine bases, such as the recruit depot in San Diego or Camp Pendleton, told snippets of history. The Corps had a much larger trove of iconic and priceless artifacts, but nowhere to put them.
“The dream was to have a place, a home perhaps or even a touchstone for Marines and Marine families, for their service to Corps and country to be honored,” said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman Jr., president of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, which raised most of the funds to create the museum.
“The original vision was to build a military museum. What we have actually created is an American history museum. The story of the Marine Corps is the story of the nation,” Blackman said.
The museum opened its doors with galleries covering World War I through Vietnam. In 2010, it added three more dating from the birth of the Corps in 1775.
What’s missing? Beirut, the Gulf War and a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, for starters. “Of course a lot has happened since the 1970s. There is so much more to tell,” said Lin Ezell, museum director.
The museum aims to immerse visitors in the Marine Corps through attention to the smallest details. Even the color of the clay in a Vietnamese landing zone must be the correct shade of red.
Eventually when they open exhibits on Iraq and Afghanistan, the pressure of historical authenticity will be immense, Ezell said.
“The memories will be very fresh, sometimes raw. We’ll have a hard audience there. A lot of people who will have been there, done that,” she said. Such an abundance of living history to draw on — “it’s a good problem to have.”
An in-depth look at modern Marine history is awaiting the final build-out of the museum. The plan is to add to the ring circling the arched central gallery hanging with aircraft, expanding the museum from 118,000 square feet to more than 200,000. New exhibit galleries, a large-screen theater, classrooms and a studio for combat artists are in the works.
The existing facility on a hill near Quantico Marine Corps Base cost about $90 million and has attracted more than 2.8 million visitors, including more than 200,000 schoolchildren.
The foundation raised about $60 million to open the museum, most of it in contributions from individuals. The Marine Corps paid about $30 million toward the initial design and exhibits and continues to pay operating costs.