Patriots Points Medal of Honor Museum should follow New Orleans proven lead
BY RON BRINSON
A National Medal of Honor Museum at Patriots Point is a good idea.
Make that a great idea.
And good for my friend, Gen. Jim Livingston, a Vietnam War hero and a Medal of Honor recipient. From New Orleans, he “retired” to Mount Pleasant in 2004 and has been advocating this museum campus concept at Patriots Point ever since. So let the development process begin, and may it be propelled with vigorous public and private sector support — especially in Greater Charleston.
It’s going to need it, and we taxpayers must measure our expectations carefully.
Museums are tricky and risky. And yes, largely about money.
Los Angeles architect Alan Grant, writing in an American Association of Museums publication, offers this cautionary commentary: “It’s like that old adage: If you ran your business like museums do, you’d be out of business in a week. The problem is that even after all the government subsidies and personal grants, a museum can still be out of business in a week. I’ve seen museums designed by world-famous architects forced to close their doors within a year or two of the ribbon-cutting ceremony.”
As an architect, Mr. Grant makes some sound business points: Museum sponsors should never let the “ego” of the museum theme overwhelm the practical scale of the project, and understand that the museum’s operations must generate sufficient revenues to sustain its existence.
The Patriots Point folks should quickly check in with New Orleans’ National World War II Museum. It’s probably the nation’s most successful museum development enterprise of the last several decades. Its business plan has been an even more impressive success story. The late Stephen Ambrose, author, historian and founder of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, first proposed a museum concept to the New Orleans business community in the early 1990s. Ambrose had written books about World War II and collected volumes of oral histories from D-Day veterans.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower once declared that the landing boats used in the D-Day invasion keyed the Allies’ success at Normandy. The boats were designed and built by 30,000 workers at Higgins Industries throughout lower Louisiana. In a 1964 interview, President Eisenhower reportedly told Ambrose, “Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us.”
So the New Orleans museum opened in June 2000 as the National D-Day Museum with carefully measured expectations. Its success would dictate future growth; its business plan emphasized a prove-it-as-you go business plan.
The little museum was an instant hit, and in 2003 Congress declared it America’s National World War II Museum. With that sort of credibility, it has grown into a $300 million multi-block campus in New Orleans’ warehouse district. The attractions blend visual arts technology and simple displays of artifacts from the War that killed more than 70 million people, most of them civilians. Private donations from New Orleans families are evident in the names of buildings and attractions, such as Solomon Victory Theater and the Kushner Restoration Pavilion.
In March, the Museum began its latest expansion, the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. This $35 million facility will display America’s World War II aircraft assets. The funding includes a $20 million federal grant and a $15 million gift from Boeing, the museum’s largest private-sector contribution ever.
The New Orleans museum operates as a private non-profit organization. The board has insisted on a fist-tight financial operation from the beginning. Its objective is to capitalize expansions and improvements with equal shares of federal, state and private donations. Operations have been in the black since opening day.
Gen. Livingston served on the D-Day Museum Board during its careful start-up and should be able to provide the Patriots Point project sponsors with valuable insights about what it takes to birth a museum.
Museums are too often introduced with wide-eyed expectations that undermine financial discipline. The New Orleans project instructs strongly against that and emphasizes deliberate phase-by-phase development governed by a national board of successful business leaders.
But the summary lesson of the New Orleans project is that transparent governance stressing sound fiscal policies reassures private sector donors and government grantors.
The Patriots Point project is just getting started — the perfect time to signal those values to the donor marketplace.
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, was president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities from 1979-86 and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans 1986-2002. A North Charleston city councilman, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.