Some museums are as brightly lit as football fields, but the galleries at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum (30 W. Mifflin St.) are dim. It's a smart design choice that encourages quiet reflection and hushed remarks, like the one I overheard a woman make as she gazed at the Vietnam War display. "He was there in 1968, so I would have been 8 or 9," she said. "Isn't that weird?"
"He was lucky to come back alive," her companion said.
Established by the state legislature in 1901, the museum opened at its current location in 1993. Its permanent displays commemorate American military activity from the Civil War through the Persian Gulf war of the early 1990s. There is a special emphasis, of course, on the men and women of Wisconsin who served.
The galleries proceed chronologically, so that as visitors enter they first gaze at Civil War-era artifacts -- a ghastly iron slave collar from Virginia, a print of the Madison army base Camp Randall. Quiet arrangements of period songs ("Dixie," "Shenandoah") play from speakers overhead. In one corner, a massive diorama recreates 1862's Battle of Antietam, in Maryland, where many Wisconsin men fought in the Iron Brigade.
All around are displays of guns, equipment and grisly photographs. Elsewhere in the first room, computers let museumgoers look up information about Wisconsin veterans of the Civil War, and displays document the Spanish-American war and the the United States' occupation of the Philippines.
In the next room, much larger, are displays about America's wars of the 20th century. Overhead loom aircraft: a Sopwith Camel biplane, a Vietnam War-era Hue helicopter. The sound of gunfire erupts through speakers. So, too, does music, to jarring effect -- The Doors' "Light My Fire" and a bouncy piano arrangement of "Over There" play simultaneously.
World War II is the conflict recalled in the greatest detail. Displays about it stretch practically the length of the room and include tributes to the Pacific theater, the air war and the homefront. In this room also is the museum's most striking interactive feature, a submarine periscope that protrudes from the roof of the downtown building. The device affords fuzzy views of the Capitol and other nearby landmarks.
Looking at the displays, I found myself feeling grateful to the veterans who served, and fascinated by the technology of war that the museum documents so thoroughly. But I also found myself despairing over all the carnage.
Missing from the museum, for the moment at least, are exhibits for the wars currently under way in Afghanistan and Iraq. These too will doubtless get their due, eventually.