Monday, October 25, 2010

IMMERSIVE STORYTELLING



Today, a little virtual visit to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Above is a short interview with PR officer Kacey Hill, who talks about some of what the Museum is trying to achieve. Originally called the D-Day Museum, it opened in 2000 to present the history of the amphibious assaults by Allied Forces during World War II. D-Day, as I learned, referred not just to the famous campaign in Normandy, France, but also to other assaults, including those on Rome and Saipan, also in June of 1944. The Museum has since become the official National World War II Museum; with the new name comes an expanded mission and scope of exhibitions. When I was there, a new exhibition about the role of Jewish people in (fighting) World War II, on loan from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, was being installed. 

The Museum deftly mixes broad historical treatments (big maps and other displays about battles, troop strength) with personal perspectives (personal artifacts, booths with short clips of oral history interviews). As many history museums do, of course, this one takes the visitor along a specific route in the museum, so that it can tell you a story of World War II in sequential order. Don't follow the order, and the story gets confused, right? This was pointed up for me by the presence, across the street, of the Civil War Museum (previously the Confederate Museum), which presents artifacts in a manner that is attractive but that has little narrative order; the layout of the museum, mostly in one large hall with cases in the center and along the perimeter, allows you to wander through in whatever way you please. It doesn't chronicle the major battles of the war, or tell you the story of particular soldiers throughout the war. That's a fine arrangement for visitors who are already knowledgeable about Civil War history, and are more concerned with weapons technology, or specific aspects of the war, or even the aesthetics of the period. This is all in striking contrast to the clear path -- physical, as well as narrative -- that you are taken on in the National World War II Museum. 

The World War II Museum felt to me as if it were informed by film, and not just because it uses some film clips; rather, in walking through this story, it's as if you are walking through a 3D film! The wall-size reproduction of a newspaper announcing the Pearl Harbor bombing seemed not unlike the giant newspaper headlines that spin out at you in some older movies; the wall text is a bit like the dialogue in a film, or the intertitles in a silent film; and the oral history interviews give us some of our main characters. Perhaps this was no more like a movie than some other history museums; I may have been influenced in this thinking by the actual "4-D" movie shown exclusively at the Museum's theater -- "Beyond All Boundaries." 

The film is narrated by Tom Hanks, for whom I gained a new respect; he did a great job. (He's also the film's executive producer, and a big booster of the Museum overall.) "Boundaries" tells the story (or a story) of WWII in just over 45 minutes, using 3-D props that pop up on stage or in front of the screen, such as an old-fashioned radio, or a guard tower, or the nose of a B-17 bomber, as well as surround-sound, elaborate lighting, seats that shake during battle scenes, and, if I'm not mistaken, flakes of (fake) snow that fall from the ceiling during a winter scene. It's all in the name of immersing the visitor in WWII, at least as much as can be done in a museum. I found the film informative, occasionally moving, and even, with its representation of the Hiroshima bombing, unnerving. At the same time, all the special effects diminished some of the gravity of the topic. I think that a well-told story can be every bit as immersive as a "4-D" movie. Still, I'm a specific viewer; younger visitors may need something that's informative and also attention-grabbing. The film succeeds in that, and in so doing communicates something about the enormous stakes and massive scale of the war. Below is the trailer.
   

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