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A claustrophobic jungle patterned to mimic the habitat of Vietnam. A World War II trench so narrow and foreboding one false move could place you between the crosshairs of an angry German soldier’s rifle.
A battered fire truck carrying the damage laid waste to a country more than a decade ago after the Pentagon was targeted by terrorists.
Chris Kolakowski paints visual pictures with his hands and his words, walking across the gutted remains of the General George Patton Museum of Leadership, which is slated to fully reopen June 14 after a dramatic overhaul. He points to bare walls and exhibits under construction and asks for one’s imagination to envision a final product so realistic you practically can smell the sweat on bodies huddled under a camouflaged canopy or feel the tension in the room during peace talks to end the first Gulf War.
Kolakowski, the museum’s director, said what is being undertaken now is “unprecedented” for a U.S. Army museum. In many ways, the museum has had to destroy itself so it can rebuild, shedding its old identity as a storehouse for tanks and armor equipment that was packed and sent to Fort Benning, Ga., for reuse at the National Armor and Cavalry Museum with the departure of the Armor Center.
The Patton Museum was left with a small inventory it has paired with new artifacts to tell the story of Army leadership from 1775 to the present. The museum’s new angle approaches leadership through the perspective of personal traits, such as intellectual integrity, character and presence. A multi-million dollar facelift has added around 20 years of life to the 45,000-square-foot facility, Kolakowski added.
To facilitate its rebirth, museum staff has compiled prized pieces to round out a specified collection Kolakowski said should stimulate the senses and challenge the mind. Kolakowski recently returned from Fort Hood, Texas, after securing artifacts there and was expecting an $800,000 shipment of display cases last week. Boxes of equipment and supplies are layered around the museum’s shell as construction continues, including thousands of dollars worth of life-like mannequins to be used as props to tell stories.
“This is months and years of work,” he said.
The museum, he said, will move away from the “antiseptic” feel of a reserved museum that prefers visitors look but not touch as workers engineer both interactive and immersive exhibits to engage the public.
With approximately 33,000 square feet of display space, makeshift environments will be available for visitors to cross into, including the aforementioned Vietnam jungle and the World War II trench, constructed in narrow hallways to emphasize a closed-in environment.
Kolakowski said it is imperative the museum do its due diligence for each scenario presented, focusing on the smallest aspects, matching the precise color of sand on a beach to make sure it is realistic geographically, and creating shadows on streets.
“That’s the level of detail we have to put into (each exhibit) to make sure it is a good product,” he said.
The museum also is tapping into the latest in technology by developing a smartphone application to use augmented reality, which offers a live view of a physical, real-world environment that has been modified by computer-generated input such as sound, video or some form of graphics content.
Several exhibits will have such capability, he said, allowing visitors to download the app and view augmented reality through their smartphone as a way to enhance the exhibits in front of them. In most cases, users will be given options that will test their leadership qualities as they try to work out solutions for important decisions in famous battles or moments in Army history, including a scenario involving Patton, an exhibit for Little Big Horn and a street scene during the Allied advance that freed Rome during World War II.
Kolakowski said users can set their own priorities, make decisions and try to “improve on history.”
Patton’s grizzled visage stands front and center as visitors walk down the entranceway of the museum, a visual cue the mission and layout of the museum as it once was known is no more.
Before, Patton’s influence on the museum was primarily limited to the final room on the tour, featuring uniforms, photographs, guns and vehicles. Those artifacts will remain, but Kolakowski said Patton will be entwined throughout. Moreover, the museum will share artifacts from Patton’s life that have never before been on display or have been in storage for years, he said, such as flags and personal childhood belongings.
He described Patton as a persuasive leader who could bring out positive and negative reactions in people.
“He’s the best brand in the Army and he’s our namesake,” he said.
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or email@example.com.