Why do we need an Army museum? Why should it be located at Fort Belvoir?
Those were the two primary questions members of the Rotary Club of Mount Vernon wanted to hear answered. And answered they were by retired Army Brig. Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, executive director, Army Historical Foundation, during a talk at the Mount Vernon Inn on May 1,
The museum would be built under the aegis of the Foundation. It is a private agency and depends on funds from memberships, donations and grants for support. Membership is open to anyone interested in preserving the heritage of the American soldier, according to its literature.
"The Army museum will tell the story of the U.S. Army as well as serve as a tribute to the American soldier. And the American people will gain greater insight of the part the Army played in shaping this nation," Abrams said.
Commissioned in field artillery, Abrams commanded two batteries, a battalion, a division artillery and a corps artillery throughout his 31 years of service, which included duty tours in Korea, Vietnam, Germany, Italy, southwestern Asia, at the Pentagon, and on the NATO staff. With both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English, he taught that subject at West Point.
As for locating the museum at Fort Belvoir, Abrams explained, "We want it in the National Capital Region because we want it where it will be the most accessible to visitors. Fort Belvoir met all our criteria."
He noted that there are a series of Army museums on 50 bases throughout the nation, but not one national museum. All the other services have a national museum. The Army is the only one with scattered sites, according to Abrams. A Marine Corps museum will be located at Quantico.
THERE ARE MORE than 500,000 artifacts and 12,000 works of art that tell the story of the U.S. Army's history, he noted. "The American people will gain a greater awareness of the part the Army played in shaping their heritage."
He also noted Fort Belvoir is very close to the home of George Washington, the Army's first commander. "America won the Revolution because Washington created our Army and kept it around him. No Army, no Revolution. No Washington, no Army," Abrams emphasized.
"Soldiers are in danger of losing their historical memory within our changing Army," he said. "Since 1775, countless treasures have been lost because there is no central facility."
He explained, "A national museum was first suggested in 1814, but nothing happened." He attributed this to the fact that the combination of people not wanting to put the military on national display, and a misconception that the Smithsonian Institution served as the Army's museum served to halt its creation.
Abrams cited a variety of past projects in the National Capital Area that can be attributed to the Army. Among them are the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome, both built by the Army Corps of Engineers, formerly headquartered at Fort Belvoir.
BUT THERE IS A hitch to the Fort Belvoir site, Abrams revealed. The Army War College at Carlisle, Pa., is also vying to be the home of the museum.
"They presently are the repository for the Army archives, and they say that makes them a viable museum site. We are trying to figure out to give them something and have the museum at Belvoir," Abrams said.
He estimated the ultimate cost to top $100 million. "Although the museum will never be big enough to tell the entire story of the Army, we want it to be a world-class visitors’ site. If we do it right, it will symbolize that 1980s recruiting slogan, 'Be All You Can Be,'" Abrams insisted.
Two sites within the Fort Belvoir complex are under consideration. Both are adjacent to Route 1 to give maximum accessibility to the public. One is immediately inside the Main Gate and the other is farther down Route 1. There is also hope that a future Metro stop will be situated near the site to increase its accessibility, he revealed.
"The Foundation is looking for funds in the private sector, not the public," Abrams assured. "Last week we sent out 10 Request for Proposals to professional fund-raisers."
In addition to the private money, Abrams said, "we are hoping to get a small public grant to jump-start the campaign. And the staff of the museum will be paid by the Army."
Plans call for the museum to consist of a 150,000-square-foot exhibit area and a 10,000-square-foot auditorium. These will be supplemented with ancillary facilities. Target date for completion is 2009.
"But, I must remind you," Abrams said in concluding his presentation, "that I also said that the first idea for this project was put forth by the secretary of war in 1814. We've learned to be patient, if nothing else."