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Lewis Army Museum renovations continue, new exhibit planned

Sgt. Mark Miranda A glass display case at the Fort Lewis Museum holds several artifacts of the type used during the Lewis and Clark expedition. The display mannequin wears a replica uniform worn by officers in the early 1800s, and is part of the larger

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. - Restoration on the Lewis Army Museum building itself is finished, now the galleries and exhibits within need to be reconstituted. Currently the museum is open to the public Thursday through Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. and for scheduled tour groups Monday through Friday.

The Lewis Army Museum, with its early 20th century architecture and white exterior breaks through the green of surrounding trees, and is often the first building drivers heading north on Interstate Five see of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

From 1919 until 1972, it was the Fort Lewis Inn, just inside what used to be the entrance gate of Fort Lewis. It served as a guest house and temporary housing for officers newly-arrived or visiting the post.

Outside the historic building is a park where tanks, vehicles, artillery and missiles from the U.S. Army's past are displayed for visitors to see up close.

While those exhibits are always open, those inside are a different matter. Restoration on the building itself is finished, now the galleries and exhibits within need to be reconstituted. Currently the museum is open to the public Thursday through Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. and for scheduled tour groups Monday through Friday.

"We've hosted large groups from school field trips as well as smaller groups of soldiers new to Joint Base Lewis-McChord," said museum director Myles Grant, who leads the efforts to restore the museum to its full potential.

Eventually, visitors will have access to several galleries, each focusing on a specific theme: soldiers of the Northwest; The Lewis Army Post; Medical Corps; The Army Family; Gallery of Valor; I Corps; and rotating displays in the main lobby.

Support and funding for the museum is provided by a group of several hundred generous people known as the Friends of the Fort Lewis Military Museum. The lobby desk, where past hotel guests would check in, is now where The Friends of the Museum Store operates.

The lobby also holds a gallery that details the Lewis Army Museum's past as the former Red Shield Inn, completed in 1919. The inn's construction was contracted by the Salvation Army in 1918 to house newly-arriving soldiers and their Families at "Camp Lewis."

The building is one of two surviving buildings from the former Greene Park, a recreation area established for soldiers mobilized or stationed here during World War I (the other surviving building houses the installation Family Readiness Center).

The first floor holds all the galleries currently open to the public. The second floor is administrative offices, storage rooms and workshops where much of the restoration work takes place.

"We get photo albums from people all the time, and store those in a climate-controlled room," Grant said. "We have a room that holds our books - we're making an effort to store them in a way that mirrors the Library of Congress to make tracking down what we do have easier."

"Our research archives are also accessible by appointment. We field a lot of questions from all over the country, and we do our best to help those people out."

The museum has a room where it stores its collection of technical manuals.

"I had a call from someone who needed to know the dimensions of a Hawk missile for a full-size model he was building out of wood," Grant said. "We're always responding to Freedom of Information Act requests."

The museum's collection consists of approximately 6,400 cataloged artifacts, including 200 weapons, from handguns to artillery pieces. Much of the collection remains in storage. There is a lot of work for the museum's small staff that includes only Grant and museum specialist Synthia Santos.

"We're heavily dependent on assistance from volunteers," Santos said.

Santos is currently working in the print shop, creating replica posters that will be placed in window displays on the main exhibit floor.

"We've finished the first couple of phases to reconstitute the museum, and have two galleries open that branch off from the main lobby: soldiers of Pacific Northwest and the Family/Life in Service galleries," Santos said.

Directly behind the gift shop is an area blocked off where the third phase is currently underway. Most of the glass cases are empty, but marked for what they will contain. This will be the Lewis Gallery, and will highlight Fort Lewis from World War II to modern day JBLM.

The second floor has an artwork restoration shop. Across from it another workspace with mannequins dressed in historic uniforms. From floor to ceiling, stacks of plastic totes are marked with what sort of period uniforms each contains.

"We often get requests to borrow things, but I have to turn many of those requests down. The artifacts we have are irreplaceable, and the only request we can fill is for replica uniforms used in ceremonies, noncommissioned officer inductions, those sort of events," Grant said.

The museum has very few of its pieces on display outside its building. Some artifacts are found displayed in Waller Hall, I Corps headquarters and in the Hawk Education Center.

"Eventually, some of the second floor will also hold galleries, and we envision dedicating those to different branches such as signal and medical; we're already building the chaplains display with many of the pieces in place," Grant said.

In addition to hosting the museum, the building has a 15,000 square foot state-of-the-art training facility on the once vacant third floor.

"The addition of these training rooms has helped the installation alleviate a shortage of classroom space on base," Grant said.

This week, soldiers using the training facility are in the classrooms practicing their phrases in Pashto, part of a course they're taking before deployment to Afghanistan.

The museum closed down for renovation in November 2009 and reopened with limited hours in February.

"This process took a combined effort by contractors, volunteers and literally a platoon of soldiers more than a month to complete," Grant said.

The museum building was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1979. It is the only certified military museum on the West Coast. Once the renovations are finished, the museum will continue as a link to the past and preserve the heritage of old Fort Lewis and the Army in the Pacific Northwest.

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