The acclaimed museum offers an intimate glimpse of the lives of men and women in uniform.
When people talk about the old Vets Memorial, they tell stories of going to see The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Rush, Bob Dylan. What they don’t talk about: veterans. The new National Veterans Memorial and Museum suffers no such muddled focus.
The museum is dedicated to telling the personal stories of veterans from all U.S. military branches and conflicts, says Amy Taylor, chief operating officer of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., which oversaw its construction. It was brought to life by the vision of the late John Glenn, a Marine pilot before he became a world-famous astronaut and senator, and the $40.6 million donation of Les and Abigail Wexner. The 53,000-square-foot building and adjacent 2.5-acre Memorial Grove cost $75 million, and another $7 million was raised for startup and operating expenses.
Long before its public unveiling on Oct. 27, the museum garnered national attention from the likes of Architectural Digest, which named it among the most anticipated buildings scheduled to be completed worldwide in 2018. It’s compact and almost modest in size—in terms of square footage, two would easily fit inside the old Vets—yet striking in design. The exterior looks like the tip of a concrete auger that has spiraled upward through the crust of the Scioto Peninsula. The lawn curling across the rooftop emulates the riverfront greenways below.
On a wall inside the front door, NVMM’s four pillars are embossed in gold letters: honor, connect, inspire, educate. The interior is spacious and streamlined; no maze of exhibits to navigate, no barrage of sensory input. Taylor says it’s not an artifact museum, though there are about 150 on display—they exist only to enhance the personal narratives.
The bulk of those stories are told in the northern corridor, where a timeline of U.S. military history stretches along an interior wall. Fourteen thematic alcoves, which Taylor refers to as “slices of veteran service,” complement the timeline. They feature memorabilia, letters, photos, interactive touchscreens, video clips and personal effects. The alcoves carry visitors through the veteran experience in three phases: the decision to serve and leaving home; military service, including deployment, jobs and combat; and coming home—the transition from soldier to civilian and honoring the fallen.
The latter theme is carried upward to the Remembrance Gallery on the second floor. “Taps” plays sporadically over the sound system, and a wall of windows looks out onto the rooftop pavilion, which can host coming-home ceremonies or other private events. Strips of colored film on the window panels represent campaign ribbons from the Revolutionary War to present day. An “infinity flag”—a folded U.S. flag on a podium set between parallel mirrors—signifies more than 2 million soldiers who have given the ultimate sacrifice, Taylor says.
“We are grateful and better off that someone is willing to sign the blank check on their life,” she continues, “and of course we, as a society, are less because they are no longer with us.”
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