New Field Artillery museum opens
June 11, 2009
Fort Sill's highly anticipated Field Artillery Museum opened to the sound of cannon fire for a preview audience that included visiting generals and state and local leaders here June 2.
The 38,000 square-foot facility, now open to the public, opens on the Central Gallery featuring an overview of artillery history. The South Gallery, to the left includes artillery pieces and artifacts dating from ancient times up to the early 1900s. The North Gallery to the right consists of exhibits and modern era artillery from World War I to the present.
In a manner similar to Walter Cronkite's series "You Were There," Maj. Gen. Peter Vangjel, commanding general of the Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill, said the museum's intent is to provide visitors a sense of being in the environment Army artillerymen experienced throughout U.S. history.
Col. Frank Siltman, director of the Directorate of Training and Doctrine, welcomed those in attendance and introduced the first museum dedicated exclusively to the Army's longest standing branch.
"This is only the beginning, our vision is this museum will continue to grow, expand and evolve into a greater museum campus," he said. "We hope to create a campus that is a national-level attraction for researchers, historians, veterans, Soldiers, families and tourists."
Plans call for the campus to consist of an artillery and missile park to the north, an air defense artillery museum to the east and Constitution Park to the south.
Siltman recognized the Fort Sill Museum and national historic landmark curator, Towana Spivey, for his efforts in initiating the Field Artillery Museum and the FA museum's curator, Gordon Blaker, who carried the work through to its present completion. Siltman said much of what people saw before them could not have been done without the help of volunteers who worked on exhibits and helped with the opening. The colonel then thanked the Friends of Fort Sill, a private organization he called "our right-hand partners" for their ongoing assistance with fundraising and museum sustainment. He also recognized individual and business contributors, all of whom are permanently honored on the donor recognition wall inside the museum.
Siltman expressed his appreciation to Vangjel for his support and personal interest in ensuring the museum was ready to open.
Vangjel then spoke briefly as he commended Soldiers from the Warrior Transition Unit who volunteered their own time to be a part of the museum effort. Even as the general prepared to welcome those in attendance into the museum he reminded them the museum is a work in progress and invited them to share their ideas for additions and improvements.
"This is a training museum that will allow visitors to intellectually and mentally get into the environment. I don't necessarily have to have everything authentic; I just need to create the environment that they are there," he said.
The general said about 200,000 people visit the museum each year and expects that number will grow in the coming years. "We want to provide them a place so they can learn as they go, and this museum is a great first step."
For Blaker, there is a relief that comes with getting by the initial opening.
"I didn't go home Monday night so I'm a little on the exhausted side but very pleased with the opening," he said. "Everyone who is a museum person thought trying to do this in six months was insane, not to mention impossible."
Although Vangjel said every artifact or detail doesn't need to be authentic, Blaker is working hard to ensure they are. The first example of this effort, the Mexican War diorama, confronted visitors as they entered the museum and drew them into another time and place.
"The uniforms in the diorama were hand sewn to the highest authenticity standards by the best tailor I could find, and there are a lot of details that cannot be readily seen," Blaker said.
For those people who get jazzed by history, the museum staff looks to give them an artillery infusion. Connie Walker, who called herself a history buff, volunteered many hours getting the museum ready for its opening. Visitors can thank Walker for two of the lifelike horses featured in the Mexican War diorama. The horses are actually replicas she took to a taxidermist in Colorado to get flocked.
"I was real impressed with how they look; the black one looks just like my mare at home," said Walker, recently employed on post, but hoping for some free time soon to volunteer more. "I know where we started and how this building first looked, and I'm amazed by how beautiful it looks now."
Visitors' amazement may likely ratchet up several notches if Blaker can secure another artifact in the near future.
"If we can pull it off in the next three months we'll have a 30-pound parrot rifle, a monster of a gun from the Civil War," he said. He added the gun, which will dwarf many of the artillery pieces on display, is one with great artillery significance, because it put an end to masonry fortifications.
Viewing Civil War exhibits in the South Gallery, Blaker pointed to some display cases of four basically adorned Civil War uniforms. He said the number of cases will quadruple, more uniform accessories will be added and period photos will show Soldiers in uniform. Similar displays will occur throughout the museum for the different eras of artillery.
As visitors walked from one exhibit to the next, chrome stanchions with red velvet ropes set off displays from the pedestrian walkways. Blaker said these simple adornments will become history in the near future and be replaced by slant cases about 2 feet high and 4 to 5 feet long. The cases will display smaller artifacts, ammunition and implements associated with each gun and additional information.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Gaylord, on post for the Fire Support Seminar, is a born and raised artilleryman having gone through the officer basic course here in 1987. He said the collection is a wonderful place for Soldiers of today to see where their branch has come from.
"This is a good place for young Soldiers and even us old-timers to come and see how our branch has progressed and become so proficient on the battlefield of today," said the colonel from Headquarters, Training and Doctine Command at Fort Monroe, Va.
"This museum is a huge challenge and the most challenging one I've built," said Blaker. "But, it's fun to build museums and I'm looking forward to the responses from visitors as more is added."
The museum is at the intersection of Randolph and Corral roads and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 580-442-1819.