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When the Rock Island Arsenal Museum reopens June 29 after a three-year hiatus and renovation, the wall of guns remembered by many visitors will be gone. In its place will be displays about the island’s history as a prisoner of war camp in the Civil War, the products made in the arsenal shops, and the facility’s workforce and its diversity.
The museum was to be closed starting in March 2021, but shuttered a year early because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Rock Island Arsenal Museum first opened its doors on July 4, 1905 and is the second oldest museum in the U.S. Army system, behind only the West Point Museum.
“We have been working hard here at the museum over the last few weeks, over the last few months, over the last few years to prepare an incredible experience for our visitors to really explore the history here at Rock Island Arsenal,” Museum Director Patrick Allie said in a Facebook video announcing the museum’s reopening date.
The museum’s $2 million renovation is the first facelift the museum has had in 80 years. The Museum has been posting updates on its Facebook page as the June 29 reopening has grown closer.
“The Rock Island Arsenal Museum has long been a cornerstone of the arsenal and the Quad Cities community,” Col. Daniel Mitchell, RIA garrison commander said to Army public affairs. “This is an important revitalization that will be a community connector for us as we remind the public that this is their Army and their Arsenal.”
The Museum will share the arsenal’s and the Quad-Cities’ history as part of the national defense effort since it opened and have exhibits on the workforce noting the contributions of women and African Americans.
When the Rock Island Arsenal Museum reopens on June 29, its exhibits will focus on the history of the facility, its workforce, and the arsenal's contributions to national defense. This photo highlighting African American contributions to the Arsenal's war effort dates back to 1943.
It will have virtual and hands-on exhibits on things like the history of street names on Rock Island Arsenal, the history of the 108th Infantry Regiment, a unit of African American soldiers tasked with guarding Rock Island Arsenal’s Civil War prisoner of war camp, and interactive bridge building related to the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River and the Government Bridge that opened in 1905.
Guns will still be part of the museum, but in a historical context, like the manufacture of the Springfield Model 1903 bolt action rifle, according to Allie. He said that he learned from talking to people they wanted more about the Arsenal’s evolution along with the Army, national defense, and the Quad-Cities. Rock Island Arsenal has been involved in national defense from the Spanish-American War to the present-day Global War on Terrorism.
“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 told Army public affairs that ran a series of articles on the museum renovation. “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.”
When the Rock Island Arsenal Museum reopens on June 29, the wall of guns that many will remember from their youth will no longer be a part of the exhibits on display. The museum's collection started in 1903 with 15 boxes of materiel that were mostly foreign weapons brought together to study.
When the Rock Island Arsenal Museum reopens, it will feature more than 250 artifacts along with hundreds of photographs to go along with the virtual and hands-on exhibits. Though the wall of guns will be gone, another popular exhibit will return – a stuffed horse displayed by the Army at the 1904 World’s Fair from Rock Island Arsenal. The horse was used in the Arsenal’s leather shop for fitting harnesses.
Rock Island Arsenal manufactured personal equipment for infantry, cavalry, and artillery as well as small field guns, seven-inch howitzers, and five-inch siege guns. In World War 1, Rock Island Arsenal accounted for $90 million in war materiel production, building gun carriages, limbers, battery wagons, recoil mechanisms, and rifles. It acquired the Springfield M1903 production, recoil mechanisms, and limbers for the French 75mm field guns and the Mark VIII tank.
A Mark VIII tank being manufactured at Rock Island Arsenal in 1919. When the Rock Island Arsenal Museum reopens on June 29, its focus will be on the arsenal's history, workforce, and contributions to national defense, including the many items made in peacetime and war.
The arsenal doubled its output in World War 2, including gun mounts for air and sea use. “During the Korean War, the arsenal was responsible for designing, developing and manufacturing the Super Bazooka.”
During the Cold War, the arsenal became the home of the General Thomas J. Rodman Laboratory that did weapons design and development. Making the British L119 field gun became a responsibility while it also made the M198 howitzer for export sales. During the Global War on Terror, Rock Island Arsenal performed up armor and replacement work that continues today.
That is why the museum’s message has changed.
“What we sought to do in the new design is to better integrate the weapons that had something to do with Rock Island Arsenal, things that were made here or experimented on here, or small arms that had some sort of linkage to RIA and weave them into the broader interpretation,” Allie said.
Though the focus of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum is changing to the history of the facility, its people, and contributions to national defense, some things will stay the same. A taxidermied horse that served as a model for fitting harnesses made in the shops -- and a visitor favorite -- will still be on display.
The Rock Island Arsenal Museum started in 1903 with 15 boxes of materiel sent by U.S. Chief of Ordnance Major General William Crozier for “the purpose of preserving it in a Military Museum to be established at the Rock Island Arsenal.”
Those 15 boxes included weapons and accessories from other countries that had been compiled for study. Crozier’s further directions included “a suitable building be selected as a museum to display this ordnance materiel for research and for the interest of the general public.”
Part of the government display at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis was directed to Rock Island Arsenal and included weapons confiscated in the Philippines insurrection and the taxidermy horse that have been long-time favorites of museum visitors.
Ten years after the Rock Island Arsenal Museum opened it was moved as the United States cranked up defense production. The collection went into storage. The museum reopened on July 4, 1919 and given the name The Rock Island Arsenal Museum, focusing on small arms and ordnance with a touch of arsenal history added.
The museum closed during World War 2 as space was again needed for defense production, reopening in May 1948 in Building 60 where it remains to this day. In 1959, the museum was renamed the John M. Browning Memorial Museum “in recognition of Mr. Browning’s contributions to ordnance technology and the armed forces.”
The name returned to Rock Island Arsenal Museum with the theme “people, processes, and products” to tell the history of the arsenal, its commands, and products.
Rock Island Arsenal Museum is part of the Army Museum Enterprise that oversees about 30 museums in the U.S., Germany, and South Korea with 550,000 artifacts. Rock Island Arsenal Museum has about 7,000 pieces in its collection. That collection includes five weapons confirmed from the Little Bighorn battlefield, several marked with serial number one, and three rifles gifted to a commanding general in 1958 by the Shah of Iran.
Admission is free to the Rock Island Arsenal Museum, so after it reopens on June 29 take time this summer to visit and find out the importance of this facility to the defense of the United States, the Quad-Cities, and the facility’s fascinating history.
For more information on visiting the island, including visiting hours, where to access the island and what forms of identification you’ll need, please click here to visit the Rock Island Arsenal webpage.
Rock Island served as a Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War. Construction of Rock Island Arsenal began during the Civil War, but the clock tower was the first building completed in 1867.
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