- Historic Sites
The D-Day Museum
What do you need to build the only national museum dedicated to World War II? The same things we needed to fight the war it commemorates: faith, passion, perseverance—and a huge amount of money.
May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
We started with the United States Congress. Rep. Robert Livingston, whose district included the University of New Orleans, believed he could get four million dollars for us, which seemed to be enough. We thought that the board of the Eisenhower Center would be the agency to oversee and guide the project. We were wrong; Sen. Sam Nunn and others in the Congress were furious with the way Stanford University had spent money allocated to it and had sworn never again to give money to a university. So we created a new entity with its own board, the National D-Day Museum Foundation, separate from the university. We got the appropriation.
Arthur Davis was chairman of the new board. He is a famous New Orleans architect who built the Louisiana Pavilion for the 1984 World’s Fair. He had worked on the pavilion with Jack Masey of MetaForm in New York and the documentary producer Charles Guggenheim of Washington, D.C., and said they were the best. Both men were veterans of the war. I went to New York to meet Masey. He took me to the Ellis Island Museum, where he had designed the exhibits. Pointing to a pair of baby shoes that had come over to Ellis Island on an immigrant ship from Germany, Masey said that in museums “smaller is better.” I had visited lots of military museums and watched people turn away from an entire wall filled with rifles and had already decided that a single M-1 with a damaged stock and a story to go with it would make a much more compelling exhibit. Or a pair of boots with a hole in them, or a helmet with a crease, or other artifacts with stories attached to them, and so on. I knew at once that Masey and MetaForm were the designers we wanted. I went on to Washington to talk with Guggenheim and see some of his documentaries. Just as Davis had said, he was the best. We hired them both.
Together Masey, Guggenheim, and I went to Normandy to spend a week walking over the battlefield and talking about the invasion. On returning, Masey got to work on displays while Guggenheim began the movie to be shown in the museum’s theater. MetaForm designed a museum to be built on the lake; we liked it and were impressed by its layout and by the displays Masey and the architects were proposing. The cost had gone up, to ten million dollars, but we thought that could be handled. Guggenheim meantime was interviewing veterans and studying film footage. His final production, finished in 1994 and called D-Day Remembered , won an Academy Award nomination, and it is as outstanding as that nomination suggests.
To gather artifacts for Masey, I wrote to all the Normandy D-Day veterans I had interviewed, more than one thousand of them, to ask them to donate articles they might have. The response was encouraging. Ammo clips, canteens, a pack of cigarettes taken ashore at Omaha Beach, captured flags, a radio, and much else came in. Then McDermott International, whose CEO, Bob Howson, had become the chairman of our board, bought the entire contents of the museum in St.-Lô, Normandy, which was going out of operation, and had them shipped to New Orleans. They included a cement lookout post from Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, a Mercedes staff car, badly damaged jeeps, discarded bits of uniforms, broken weapons, and more, all authentic artifacts picked up on the Normandy beaches after the battle by French civilians.
As Masey and Guggenheim worked, I went after money, thinking mine would be the easy part. With the late Bill Colby, a friend and the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and, most important, a World War II veteran, I flew around the country to call on the moneymen of America’s biggest corporations, ones that had played a critical role in the war. I thought our arguments were persuasive. One was a line Eisenhower had written to his brother Milton in 1939, on the day the war began: “Hitler should beware the fury of an aroused democracy.” Another was that D-Day in Normandy was the pivot point of the twentieth century. A third was the query “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” —which I thought would bring an immediate check from the corporations that had been involved in the struggle. And if not, having Bill Colby with me would be decisive.
We got encouragement and advice (“You guys should go see so-and-so”) but no cash. I learned that America’s corporations are interested in the future, not the past, and that New Orleans is a tough town to raise money in. Many thought we would never raise enough. Meanwhile, the cost of the museum had gone up again, now to twelve million dollars, and was still escalating.