Future Tense

A Physical Museum Isn’t Always Better

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial will get stronger online presence instead of a new physical building.

A U.S. flag adorns the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on May 28, 2017.
A U.S. flag adorns the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on May 28, 2017.
Jose Luis Magana/AFP/Getty Images

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund announced in September that it is abandoning long-held plans to build an underground education center on the National Mall adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The project suffered from a lack of funding, with only $45 million of a projected $130 million having been raised since 2003. In place of the 40,000-square-foot building, which would have housed exhibits featuring artifacts and first-person accounts as well as visual projections of the war’s 58,000 victims on a two-story wall, the fund will focus on partnerships with existing museums as well as online resources, mobile exhibits, and handheld technology to enrich visitors’ experiences at the memorial.

Opinions varied as to whether a brick-and-mortar education center was, in fact, necessary. “We know many veterans and supporters are disappointed in this outcome,” VVMF Chairman John Dibble said, channeling those who see it as yet another floundering attempt to show respect for veterans of our nation’s most controversial war. Sensing trouble over the summer, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois (an Iraq War veteran and former Department of Veterans Affairs official) introduced a bill allowing the fund a four-year extension to raise donations. But not even this last-ditch method could offset a lack of sustained enthusiasm for a finished building that lead organizer Jan Scruggs once said would not be “not just another interesting little museum.”

This will all be for the best. The Vietnam memorial itself is a profound and ample statement on the war and its consequences, precluding an additional structure nearby and thereby freeing up funds to use elsewhere. In addition to working with existing libraries and museums—the National Archives and the National Museum of American History, for instance, currently house Vietnam War exhibits—the fund can use technology to achieve its mission. In fact, former Secretary of Defense and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel said the fund’s board ultimately “made the right decision to focus in technology to educate visitors about the memorial.”

By reallocating resources in this manner, the fund is avoiding museum risk factors like rising upkeep costs, shifting public interest, and dwindling sources of funding—the consequences of which could involve auctions, staffing cuts, and eventual closure. When done right, the move toward online and virtual strategies for museums and libraries, education centers, historic preservation and conservation groups, and even tourist agencies can supplement and enhance customary forms of how we connect with the past.

The VVMF’s website, now a target for future development, is already a useful resource. There are comprehensive teaching materials that feature, among other things, primary source audio and video. A hometown heroes database showcases photos and personal stories from local veterans. The Wall of Faces project, which needs approximately 2,000 photos to be completed, puts a face to each victim of the war. An online photo album describes some 3,000 items left at the memorial since its dedication 36 years ago, like a pair of OG-107 tropical combat boots (one of five basic styles of “jungle boots” issued to American military personnel during the war) or a hardcover copy of Robert McNamara’s memoir—riddled with bullet holes and with a handwritten inscription by an unidentified Vietnam veteran labeling the former secretary ofdefense as “THE REAL ENEMY.”

The VVMF is also poised to capitalize on the ability of smartphone apps and augmented reality tools to inject historical context into everyday life. Its “The Wall” app has information on topics like prisoners of war, soldiers missing in action, and the Tet Offensive, plus a library of videos about the memorial’s history and the controversy over its provocative design. New updates scheduled for October are set to allow visitors to read about anyone whose name is inscribed on the memorial just by pointing their phone at the wall. Using geolocation, the app also offers guided tours, a staple of frequently visited historic sites.

This strategy has worked elsewhere. The mobile app PIVOT, which stands for Point of Interest Visual Optimization Tool, shows users through GPS-enabled text-audio an image or video from the same vantage point years in the past. First launched in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Palestine in late 2015, it relies partly on existing online archives while encouraging users to upload old and new pictures to create a “shoebox archive,” similar to the Wall of Faces project. The virtual reality app TimeLooper goes further, enabling users to see—with a headset—historic sites in present time and even relive the moments that made them famous.

Digital tools can also make inroads with educators and museum professionals. Lisa M. Snyder, an architectural historian who specializes in three-dimensional computer models of historic urban environments at UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education, is reconstructing Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition with annotations and links to primary and secondary sources that reveal themselves throughout the cybersetting. History students at West Point, meanwhile, have flown drones over western France to help create, with the help of a basic smartphone, a 3D hologram of the Normandy invasion. One day, perhaps the VVMF could develop similar projects to re-create the demolished U.S. Embassy in Saigon or the Battle of Hamburger Hill.

Whether it’s relatively basic document digitization or virtual reality simulators that blend past or present, these strategies have one critical benefit in common: to remove accessibility barriers. For many of us in metropolitan areas, traveling to and from the nearest museum, library, or historic site is not a chore. But if you live in more sparsely populated parts of the country, it’s a different story. Approximately 1.89 million Vietnam veterans, for instance, lived in rural areas between 2011 and 2015 (that group also comprises the highest percentage of veterans of all wars living in rural areas), and disability rates tend to be higher for rural than nonrural veterans, suggesting mobility and limited amenities can be daunting obstacles. To help counter this, the VVMF transports nationwide a 3/4–scale synthetic granite replica of the memorial wall along with an education center that features items whose digitized versions can be found on its website.

Another advantage: Twice in the past two years, the Trump administration has pushed for budgets that not only cut deeply into operating costs of the National Park Service (a caretaker of the Vietnam memorial) but also eliminate federal funding to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute for Museum and Library Services—all organizations that encourage history-related endeavors. This jeopardizes the condition of physical structures, of course, but also research into and development of digital initiatives. The IMLS, for instance, last month announced plans for museums of all types to share their digitized collections with K-12 schools nationwide. The NEH, meanwhile, is currently sifting through grant applications for its Digital Projects for the Public program, which “supports projects that interpret and analyze humanities content in primarily digital platforms and formats, such as websites, mobile applications and tours, interactive touch screens and kiosks, games, and virtual environments.” Snyder’s project at UCLA received a similar grant in 2010.

Although Congress each year rejected the most draconian parts of these budgets—in the end, the National Endowment for the Arts, NEH, CPB, and IMLS each saw funding increases for 2018—we can’t count on legislators to annually get it right. The ballooning deficit naturally begets calls for cuts, and in these times it’s reasonable to assume that these institutions make easy targets—something conservatives have called for over decades. (It’s worth noting that together, the organizations account for less than 0.03 percent of the federal budget, or about 1/13th the cost of the U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carrier.)

Each already does much with relatively little, yet there are still gaps to be filled in. The IMLS, according to a February 2016 article published by the website Artsy, could more fairly distribute grants to help small and midsize museums (especially those in rural areas) rather than favoring larger and more prestigious urban ones. This suggests, in part, that museums that don’t operate within a select few areas of high activity and flowing capital tend to face an uphill battle for survival. Likewise, plans to build new ones could very well end up scrapped before being pitched to the public.

As long as this problem persists, digital archives, apps, and virtual reality headsets offer a complementary means for education and exploration. But they cannot wholly replace physical locations whose chief purpose is education. Americans like having museums around—95 percent approve of lawmakers who support them—and they sustain hundreds of thousands of jobs and generate substantial tax revenue. Libraries, by the same token, are generally regarded not just as vital resource centers but as focal points for communities during times of hardship. Yes, digital tools cannot duplicate all that museums do, but the reverse is also true. When used wisely, the newest technologies at our disposal simultaneously condense and expand our environment by bringing the distant to our doorstep while piquing our interest in the undiscovered.