ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. - Patrick Allie is a 21st century Janus, of sorts.
Janus, for whom the month of January gets its name, is the Roman god of beginnings and endings, as well as the portals of time passing between. Depicted as a man with two faces, one looking backward and once gazing forward, the ancient duality of this “past to present” experience resonates strongly with Allie, and his mission here at Rock Island Arsenal: Creating a historical museum for a modern-facing world.
Following a $2 million and multi-year revamp the Rock Island Arsenal Museum is slated to reopen this summer with a very different look and feel from before. Spoiler alert: the famous “gun wall” is gone, but in its place is the story of the Arsenal and the people of the Quad Cities, something Allie feels has been lost in the shadows of the museum’s history for far too long.
The son of an Army museum director, Allie received a bachelor’s in history from the University of Kansas and master of arts in museum studies from the University of Oklahoma. He worked his way up the museum ladder serving as an archives aide at the National Archives and Records Administration; a curator at the National Airline History Museum; and the military and firearms curator at the Missouri Historical Society. Just before coming to RIA, Allie had undertaken his biggest challenge of his career by leading the complete overhaul of another Midwest museum, the Soldier’s Memorial Military Museum in St. Louis, Missouri.
Then an even bigger project presented itself and he knew it was his calling: Completely renovating and updating what he says is considered a gem of the Army military history world: The Rock Island Arsenal Museum. It was the type of project he’d dreamed of since he was a little boy.
“My entire life has been associated with museums,” he said. “I am a second-generation Army Museum professional. My dad ran the Frontier Army Museum at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for 25 years and was museum chief over the National Infantry Museum and Armor and Cavalry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia. My earliest memories were spent running around Army museums.”
When he arrived at RIA and took over in 2018, he said he knew he was coming in to make a change, and it would be a challenge.
“This museum has long been a jewel of the Quad Cities area and people were attached to what it was,” he said. “Where I came from, I had just done a major overhaul of a museum that had remained mostly unchanged from when it was established. So, I was fresh off the heels of overhauling a museum that had been largely loved, and largely untouched since 1938.
“I knew coming in that people had the same attachment to the RIA Museum, and consideration of that attachment was important,” Allie added. “However, I also have a mission to create an experience for the widest audience possible to ensure the museum gets to tell its story for another 100 years.”
Knowing that upsetting the applecart of the exhibits, so to speak, might be met with disapproval from stalwart supporters – especially deciding to permanently retire the famous “wall of weapons” – Allie was confident that he had a vision for what the museum should be, and started curating and designing a new experience for visitors to explore.
“Since opening to the public in 1905, the Rock Island Arsenal Museum has gone through several updates and revamps to better support its mission and tell the story of the Army,” he said. “Many of the displays had little real connection, if any, to the Arsenal’s history. The new exhibits will focus on the history of the Arsenal and how it fits into the wider Army Organic Industrial Base, which is supported by multiple commands headquartered at Rock Island Arsenal.”
So, how does one choose from tens of thousands of artifacts which will go on display to fully convey the story of multiple commands over 200 years? According to Allie, that is a decidedly complex and taxing process.
“When you choose what goes on display in a museum, it’s based on a lot of factors – not just what is the coolest and greatest thing,” he said. “You must envision long term considerations like: Are they textiles, do they need to be rotated, are they too damaged to display but important enough to be preserved for future research. The primary thing to consider, though, is, do these items tell the story?”
Allie said he inherited a museum that told a very gun-centric story, but that wasn’t really the story of RIA. So, as he was laying out the future of the history he sought to uncover what made the Arsenal run over the years.
Through a variety of feedback channels and research, Allie built a repository of what visitors wanted to see, and a more complete picture of the Arsenal and its mission over its history. More than weapons, he said, the more people he talked to, the more he found them much more interested in the evolution of the Arsenal and its workforce, and how that fit not only into the Army story, but the Quad Cities story.
“Part of the uniqueness of the Arsenal over the years has been the people who work here,” he said “Unlike most traditional Army installations, RIA, and its sister organic industrial base military depots and arsenals, historically have been primarily staffed by a local employee workforce under the command of a small number of uniformed leaders. People from the surrounding communities often spend their entire careers on RIA and, for a lot of them, it’s a family business. It’s not unusual to hear about generations of families working here.”
Allie was sure he could find a way to tell their story, and the Army story, in a way that captures the interest of all ages and abilities. From the older generations who could remember wartime manufacturing to the kids who are looking for a STEM-centric way to engage, he has carefully crafted a museum experience that is just a few short months away from being unveiled.
“Visitor experience was key to defining the new interpretation,” he said. “The new exhibits will take a chronological approach that better contextualizes the history of both the region and how the Arsenal has supported the warfighter over time. The artifacts featured will all either be items produced at the Arsenal or have a key connection to the Arsenal.
“Visitors will also encounter more digital media that allows them to deep dive into various aspects of Arsenal’s history that are often not explored. Public expectations of museums and how museums share history have changed since the Museum last underwent a major renovation,” Allie said.
“And it isn’t just about digital interactives or a new coat of paint,” he added, “It’s about the types of stories we tell and how we tell them. Our storyline is more inclusive and diverse, focusing on stories of women and people of color, and their part in the history of the Arsenal. The exhibits will have increased accessibility starting with a design that is compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, but also touchable models and props for those with low or no vision.”
At 35 years old, Allie is the youngest director in the Army Museum enterprise. Some people might expect a more “seasoned” person to be at the helm of such a significant undertaking, given the stereotype of the doddering old history museum director with wire-rimmed glasses and gray hair, but Allie feels he is the right person at the right time for this endeavor. He’s certain his holistic approach across all ages and backgrounds of visitors is the secret weapon to ensure the successful future of the museum for years to come.
“I am a dad with two small sons, and we love museums,” he said. “I have the unique perspective to see what engages people at all ages though my professional life, and my off-duty life, from kids to adults. A major measure of my success is to have every person who comes through that door identifying with just one aspect of Rock Island Arsenal’s history.
“Maybe it’s the child exploring the hands-on bridge building area or the interactive exhibits. Maybe it’s the young professional woman who identifies with the women who answered the call during wartime on the factory lines. Maybe it’s the family who has seen parents, grandparents and great-grandparent be a part of the history of the RIA workforce spanning decades,” Allie said.
“If they can find just one thing that resonates with them, that ties them to the Army story and to the Rock Island Arsenal story, this museum will have succeeded. And that is what we are here to do – to tell that story.
“And I can’t wait to start sharing the next chapter in the long history of Rock Island Arsenal with them.”
Editor’s Note: This is a four-part series reflecting on the experiences of people with ties to the grand reopening of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum in Summer 2023. This is Part One - The Visionary. It is a glance into the mind of the man behind the redesign, museum director Patrick Allie.