By Roderick Gainer, Chief Curator, Arlington National Cemetery
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
To recognize the 2021 centennial commemoration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) created two new major museum exhibits at the cemetery. The first exhibit, located in the Memorial Amphitheater Display Room, directly behind the Tomb, opened in November 2020, while the second, located in the Welcome Center, opened in early 2021. Together, these two exhibits provide new interpretations of the Tomb’s history and legacy to the thousands of global visitors that come to ANC. Based on extensive research in primary sources and developed in conjunction with the cemetery’s recently implemented Interpretation Plan, these exhibits help expand the Tomb’s story and explain its national, as well as international, significance.
Memorial Amphitheater Display Room Exhibit
To kick-off the centennial, ANC completely refreshed the exhibits in the Memorial Amphitheater Display Room. This new exhibit explores the transitions in the Tomb’s meanings and symbolism. Over the years, the Tomb evolved from honoring a single World War I Unknown to honoring Unknowns from all wars. As the exhibit explains, with the addition of one unknown service member from World War II and one from the Korean War in 1958, followed by one from the Vietnam War in 1984 who was identified and disinterred in 1998, the Tomb has become a central site of American military memory.
The new exhibit’s strong interpretive themes do much to place the Tomb in the proper historical context for those visiting the site, located just steps away. That includes hundreds of dignitaries each year who participate in official ceremonies at the Tomb followed by a visit to the Display Room exhibit. Many of these official visits include the presentation of a gift inside the Display Room to honor America’s unknown service members, a tradition which has been a hallmark of ceremonies beginning with the interment of the World War I Unknown in 1921.
View of two large exhibit panels located in the Arlington National Cemetery Welcome Center exhibit. Each panel is thematic and includes text, images, and angle-mounted plinths.
As part of this new exhibit, all efforts were made to ensure the Display Room is safe for artifacts. Many items of national historical significance are on display, to include the medals presented to the Unknowns, such as the Medal of Honor, Great Britain’s Victoria Cross, and France’s Legion of Honor.
Other notable items on display include artifacts from Chief Plenty Coups of the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe of the Great Plains, who represented American Indians at the 1921 ceremony and presented his war bonnet, coup stick, and lance in tribute to the Unknown Soldier. A delegation from the Crow Nation participated in the 2021 centennial events to honor Plenty Coups’ special connection to the Tomb.
To further bring the stories of the Tomb to life, this exhibit also includes four video panels. Archival motion picture footage of the events connected with each of the Unknowns is projected onto these panels. This multimedia element adds a new visual component to the exhibit that helps visitors understand the layers of history they are encountering as they visit the Tomb.
Welcome Center Exhibit
Dr. Allison Finkelstein, gives a tour of the Display Room to Medal of Honor Recipients U.S. Army 1st Lt. Brian Thacker and U.S. Marine Corps Col. (ret.) Barney Barnum on Medal of Honor Day, March 25, 2022. A number of priceless artifacts are visible in the archival display cases to include the folded flag from the World War I Unknown’s funeral, Chief Plenty Coups U.S. Army Signal Corps flag, and a cast of Augustus Saint-Gaudens “Victory” statue which was presented as a gift to the WWI Unknown. U.S. Army photo.
Completed in early 2021, the Welcome Center exhibit serves as the gateway into the cemetery for most visitors. Thousands of visitors interact with the exhibit each day as they begin their visit to ANC. This exhibit uses the Tomb as a lens to explore the cemetery’s larger history. It shows how Arlington’s development impacted the Tomb’s origins, and it uncovers how the Tomb shaped the evolution of the cemetery itself, revealing its changing meanings over time. While the environment of the Welcome Center is not conducive to safely displaying artifacts, the exhibit is rich in archival photographs and interpretive text.An ancillary photo exhibit on the outer exhibit walls also details the everyday activities that take place on Arlington’s hollowed grounds. Composed of stunning images by ANC’s official photographer (contractor) Elizabeth Fraser, this supplemental exhibit provides visitors with a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes activities that make ANC function and enable the execution of events like the Tomb Centennial.
Exhibit Accessibility During the Pandemic and Beyond
In keeping with ANC’s commitment during the pandemic to use hybrid (digital and in-person) programming to make the Tomb centennial accessible to public no matter they lived, the cemetery worked to make these exhibits accessible as well. The History Office collaborated with the ANC Public Affairs Office to produce short video tours of both exhibits. Historian Timothy Frank narrated a Display Room Exhibit Virtual Tour, while Senior Historian Dr. Allison S. Finkelstein created a Welcome Center Exhibit Virtual Tour. In addition, ANC published a Commemorative Publication based heavily on the text and rich imagery in both exhibits. This publication is free to download and provides a sense of the breadth and scope of ANC’s two new Tomb centennial exhibits.
In the future, we hope to share these, and other exhibits, on our website as well. In the meantime, our exhibit spaces are open daily from 8am to 5pm, 365 days a year. We invite you to experience these exhibits in-person or virtually in order to gain an appreciation of the transitions in the Tomb’s meanings and its impact on ANC’s history.
Display Room Virtual Tour – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDPF-i7-23Y
Welcome Center Virtual Tour – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsMA0rj5-Ks
Commemorative Publication (PDF format) – https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Portals/0/TUS%20Commemorative%20Guide%20SMALL%20WEB%20QUALITY%20VERSION.pdf
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