Collings Foundation opens new interactive American Heritage Museum
By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Since 1979 the Collings Foundation, under the directorship of Bob Collings and his wife, Caroline, has brought history to life through the interactive shows it presents throughout the country. Using transportation-related events such as antique car rallies, vintage airplane rides, and races where different types of vehicles compete against each other, guests have been given a front row seat to history. Unlike static displays, this type of exhibition puts man and machine through their paces inviting viewers to experience history as if they were actually there.
In keeping with the theme of interactive education, the Collings Foundation is ready to introduce one of its most inspiring and ambitious endeavors, the American Heritage Museum (A.H.M.). The new 70,000 square foot museum, located at the foundation’s headquarters in Stow, Mass., features more than 80 authentic military vehicles that saw live duty in wars and conflicts ranging from WWII through the current War on Terrorism. Included in the museum are a large number of vehicles from the estate of the late Jacques Littlefield of Portola Valley, Calif. Prior to his death, Littlefield was considered one of the premier collectors of military vehicles in the United States.
Collings, who along with son Rob, oversees the new museum, noted that it is set up to give visitors a truly memorable, interactive experience.
Experiencing history first-hand
Upon arrival, visitors will enter a small theater where they will view a brief but compelling film that paints a vibrant portrait of America’s experience in the American Revolution and the Civil War. Next, they will enter a simulated, life-size World War I “trench” to get a sense of what soldiers experienced in Saint-Mihiel, a major battle that took place in France in 1918. Through the use of customized sound, lighting and visuals visitors can understand the terror experienced by soldiers of the day.
Next, guests will enter the “War Clouds” exhibit where they will watch a short film that highlights the period between the two world wars, leading to the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. One of the major artifacts on display in this section is a German Panzer 1A Light Tank, the only one of its kind on display in North America. There is also a rare and impeccably restored Mercedes G4 staff car, a vehicle favored by the Nazi high command.
Following the video presentation, a screen rises to reveal a balcony overlooking the main hall where 84 accurately restored military vehicles are displayed based on a chronological timeline. The display traces the history of military equipment through World War II, culminating with contemporary conflicts including the current War on Terrorism.
The A.H.M. is much more than a tank museum, Collings stressed. Although there are many tanks, the collection features everything from landing craft, ambulances, aircraft and anti-aircraft gunnery, and guided missiles. One of the center pieces of the collection is an actual SCUD missile and launcher, along with more recent equipment like tracked, remote control robots that were used in recent anti-terrorism conflicts. All of the vehicles are authentically restored and were used in the respective wars or conflicts that they are representing at the museum.
(For a complete detailed list of featured displays visit www.collingsfoundation.org/american-heritage-museum/american-heritage-museum-artifact-list.)
Other important artifacts on display include an actual section of the Berlin Wall and a twisted piece of beam recovered from the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
As the vision was taking shape, the Collings’ worked with BPI Boston Productions to create the video presentations and the large photo murals that are displayed throughout the museum.
“These help make the experience more personal by putting the vehicles into the context they were in,” Collings said. “Rather than just looking at a vehicle, you get a sense of what it was like then.”
Hunter Chaney, Director of Marketing for the Collings Foundation, said that they realize there will be diverse groups eager to visit the museum so they plan that multimedia will eventually be geared to the group’s particular level of interest and age. Docents will be on hand to give tours and touchscreens at each vehicle will provide relevant information. In the future, the museum hopes to offer to school groups personalized content that will match with the particular period or conflict they are studying.
Although the museum has yet to open there has already been a swell of interest from military vehicle aficionados as well as those who are eager to come volunteer and help maintain the vehicles on display, Collings noted.
The fortuitous Littlefield meeting
The museum would not be possible if were not for a very substantial gift from the estate of the late Jacques Littlefield. A wealthy California engineer, Littlefield had a deep passion for military vehicles. His collection, the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation, was considered one of the finest in the world.
Collings noted that it was his son, Rob, who had first developed the relationship with Littlefield on a visit to California. Having very similar interests, Collings half-jokingly suggested that Littlefield might want to loan a tank to the Collings Foundation following a shared flight in a P-51 Mustang.
Following Littlefield’s untimely death, the Collings’ inquired about purchasing a vehicle from the renowned collection.
“They said they wouldn’t sell us one,” Collings said. “But rather, they wanted to donate the entire collection to us.”
That fateful decision began a true labor of love for the Collings’ that led to the creation of the A.H.M. With the help of a team of experts, the Collings’ assessed the collection for the most historically significant pieces and then sold off duplicates. Those proceeds were then used to fund the new museum in the hope that future generations can develop a deeper appreciation for that massive cost of war, not just in resources but in human life and potential.
“We hope [Jacques] would be proud of how we have moved forward to create this museum so that everyone can see these vehicles for themselves,” Collings said.
The A.H.M.’s mission
Although some might view a military museum as a tribute to war, the goal is quite the opposite. Collings is firm in his view that the new museum does not glorify war but rather, illustrates history in a way that mere words cannot.
“War is horrific – we are not encouraging it – just reporting it,” he said. “Hopefully everyone will have a sense of the magnitude of what these conflicts were and their lasting impact on our country’s history. “
The A.H.M. will have its grand opening on Thursday, May 2 and open its doors to the public on Friday, May 3. Hours of operation will be open Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To visit the museum, use the 568 Main St, Hudson address. There is ample free parking.
For more information call 978-562-9182 or 978-568-8924 or visit www.collingsfoundation.org.
Photos/Andy Weigl, Weigl Photography