The grand unveiling of the Hall of Valor gallery of the Lewis Army Museum at Joint Base Lewis-McChord last fall marked the end of its major renovations — for a while — but in many ways, it marked the beginning of the landmark’s next chapter.
The latest gallery showcases the unit histories and experiences of soldiers stationed in the Pacific Northwest through the lens of 10 key battles that range from the Philippine-American War more than 100 years ago, to present-day operations in Iraq.
Those stories are not only told through displays of uniforms, arms, equipment and relics exhibited behind panes of glass, but through detailed dioramas, videos, photos and interviews that are activated by touch screens. The gallery also has topographical maps of unit operations during key battles to promote discussion about battlefield conditions and combat decisions.
The gallery is designed to not only showcase history. It also serves as a “learning gallery” for visitors who range from young children searching for combat weapons, to soldiers newly stationed to JLBM seeking to gain esprit de corps with their new units, to veterans wanting to walk down memory lane of their days in uniform.
Hall of Valor marks the last phase of the museum’s reboot that took four years and $3 million that not only renovated the century-old building that started life as the Red Shield Inn shortly after what was then called Camp Lewis was founded in the waning days of the First World War.
“As far as the Army is concerned, we are fully open,” Museum Curator Erik Flint said, noting that some technical work is still being updated, and a few exhibits are being fleshed out, however.
“What we would like to do is take it to the next level.”
Future displays include the stories of the Special Forces units at JBLM and Ninth Infantry Division since the “Old Reliables” were at Fort Lewis when it was inactivated 1991.
“We are the keepers of the Ninth Division’s history,” Flint said. “And there are so many Ninth Division veterans, and a lot of them are here.”
Other efforts in the works during the coming years include adding more educational programs and restoring the military vehicles in the museum’s Vehicle Park. Those tanks, missiles and anti-aircraft guns were collected from around the world and throughout the century. Many are showing their age, especially as they endure Northwest weather year after year.
“Our ‘macros’ really need some help.” Flint said. “That’s a really big project.”
Stripping and repainting a “macro,” whether it is an M4 Sherman, a Type 67 37 mm anti-aircraft gun from Iraq, or an UH-1D Huey helicopter, costs between $8,000 and $12,000.
The museum has two other galleries as well.
One is “US Army in the Pacific Northwest,” that chronicles the first military bases and key events in the region’s past. The other is “History of Fort Lewis,” that tells of the formation and development of present-day JBLM during World War I through the modern era.
One subtle, but important, feature of the exhibits is how diverse the displays are. Curators didn’t want faceless displays. They wanted to show that soldiers have long been men and women, African-American, Asian and Caucasian, from all walks of life.
Two mannequins guard the entrance, for example. One is a man in an 1850s uniform. The other is a woman decked out in the latest combat uniform.
“That was very intentional,” Flint said.
When you go:
The Lewis Army Museum is the only certified U.S. Army Museum on the West Coast. It is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday.
Located at 4320 Main St. on JBLM, the museum maintains a road for civilian visitors that is accessible from Exit 119 off Interstate 5. Visitors can simply follow the access road off Steilacoom-DuPont Road to a dedicated parking lot overlooking the museum and call the museum for an escort through a controlled gate.
The museum is always looking for volunteers to provide tours and operate the gift shop and support the efforts of the Friends of the Fort Lewis Military Museum, the facility’s non-profit association.
Information about the museum can be found at LewisArmyMuseum.com.