When visiting the National Museum of the Marine Corps, visitors find more than written exhibits highlighting the Corps’ achievements; they get face to face with the voices of the Corps.
Walking through Belleau Wood, France, during World War I in June of 1918, you see the aftermath of what became ingrained in Marine Corps history; you smell the trees burned by the fierce battle that ensued. Later, you feel the cold; hear Chinese soldiers advancing up a snowy mountain in Korea and watch the Marines prepare for the next attack. You might even sense swirls of hot rotor wash and the sounds of combat as you step off the rear deck of a helicopter into a Vietnamese landing zone. These are among multiple exhibits in the National Museum of the Marine Corps where more than 60,000 uniforms, weapons, vehicles, medals, flags and aircraft are brought to life by volunteers, Marines and staff to the 1,500-plus visitors who experience the museum each day.
To pull off this daily feat, the museum relies heavily on volunteer docents – a term derived from Latin, meaning: “to teach.” The docents who share their time here are dedicated to the cause of teaching others about the Corps. They volunteer as guides and subject matter experts in Marine Corps history and work hard to bring the traditions, culture and history of the Marine Corps to life. Since opening the doors in November of 2006, docents and the caring staff of the 181,000 square foot museum, have helped more than 2 million visitors trace the history of the Marine Corps from 1775 to the present.
Delivering such a rich history to the masses requires a special touch. Michele Flynn, assistant visitor services manager, considers the docents to be one of the secrets of the museum’s success. She contends that they are able to add value to the extensive exhibits and deliver more than visitors can grasp from simply reading exhibit placards. And, although not all docents have served in the Corps, Flynn says about 80 percent of them have been affiliated with the military in some form.
“They have stories of their own and important experiences that relate,” Flynn said. “The remaining volunteers are also bona-fide historians.”
Some of the docents have personal accounts of what happened during historic events. One such volunteer and veteran Marine is Frank Matthews, who served in the WWII Battle of Iwo Jima.
“It’s fulfilling to be able to share my own experiences with all these people,” said Matthews. “I usually stand at the exit of the Iwo Jima simulation and tell people about what happened, and what it was like there.”
The docent involvement extends to the virtual museum online where visitors can watch videos, hear real-world accounts of combat and learn from oral histories of significant events in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Even those with combat experience or a history of serving the Marine Corps aren’t a sure thing when it comes to finding the right person for the docent job. All applicants, including veterans who volunteer, must be screened and interviewed before being selected. Those that might not be an exact fit as a docent still have an opportunity to contribute by helping in museum administration or within the restoration section of the exhibit staff.
Docents and Marines assigned to the museum undergo a 10-week class to learn everything they can about Marine Corps and related history. Docents who are selected to be tour guides attend an additional four-week long class. Marines on the museum staff take a 40-hour class that covers historical military uniforms, tactics and weapons.
In addition to volunteers, the Corps initially helped augment museum staff by assigning infantrymen returning from deployments to work there – as a way to give them some downtime.
“Nothing else affects people quite like a young 19 to 21-year-old lance corporal or corporal who has seen combat and tells their stories to veterans of an older generation,” said Flynn.
The museum now varies selection of Marines for the detachment, based on experience and background. In addition to infantrymen, there are now cooks, supply clerks and other occupational specialties represented.
The Marine Corps University also assigns Marines to the museum detachment to perform additional duties as docents. Marines provide security, operate the front desk, stand ready to answer questions and pass information, dress in era-specific uniforms, and give tours; the Marines do it all.
The Marines here will keep their military occupational specialty, but are chosen for this duty, said Cpl. Travis Vieyra, a food service specialist with the detachment, “so it’s up to the Marine to keep his regular specialty skills refreshed while retaining all the history and knowledge required to perform his assignment at the museum.”
Many of those who enter the museum may have never seen a Marine in person and don’t really know what to expect, said Vieyra.
“We are there to give them that first impression,” he added. “I’m a cook, but I’m a Marine first. If I need to I can drop my spatula and pick up an M16: no problem.”
Dressed in era-specific battle garb, the Marines and docents teach people about the exhibits. In the World War I exhibit, Cpl. Justin Miller, a supply administration and operations specialist with the detachment, explains uniform items on display at the entrance and provides an overview of World War I history.
“It’s pretty fun showing all these people gear from a different era,” said Miller. “It’s always great to teach somebody something new.”
But visitors aren’t the only ones learning. According to Vieyra, he learns something new about the Corps or the museum every day.
“It’s really rewarding to see the reactions of people, especially veterans who are coming here for the first time,” said Vieyra. “It is a really moving experience when these guys, who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam are coming up and thanking us for our service, but we just want to say ‘sir, thank you for your service, you’re why I’m here today.’”
Continuing the Corps
With an eventual expansion to nearly 181,000 square feet, the National Museum of the Marine Corps will be the centerpiece of the Marine Corps Heritage Center complex. This multi-use, 135-acre campus will include the Semper Fidelis Memorial Park and Chapel, a demonstration area with parade grounds, hiking trails, a conference center and hotel; and a new archive facility to restore and preserve Marine artifacts.
The key to delivering the rich and unique heritage of the Corps however, are those who are dedicated to passing on the legacy. The docents, Marines, staff, interns and volunteers of the National Museum of the Marine Corps make it happen. They share the stories of those that were, for centuries, and still are “always faithful.”