(Photo credit: Springfield Armory, courtesy JeromeG-111, Flickr Creative Commons)
Every now and again you come across a memorial where you feel that it should offer something more than it actually does. Such a place is Springfield Armory National Historic Site in Springfield, MA. This place looks like it should really be worth visiting, and yet it’s not nearly as interesting as it ought to be.
The site was home to America’s oldest and largest federal armory, and was in operation from 1777 right up to 1968, when it was closed down. Over that period the armory produced millions of weapons for the U.S. Army (and other armed forces), and these included some of the best firearms ever manufactured anywhere. Then, in 1968, the U.S. government decided it was going to commission and purchase weapons only from private manufacturing firms (such as Colt, manufacturer of the ubiquitous M16), and closed the plant down. A small part of the site was subsequently given over to the National Park Service to preserve as a museum.
Much of the original armory complex, covering 55 acres in the city of Springfield, is still intact. Most of the old buildings have, however, been extensively refurbished and now house the Springfield Technical Community College. The actual national historical site is focused on a single large structure, the Main Armory Building, off to one side of the complex. It is poorly signposted and hard to find, being far removed from the site’s main entrance, which heavily advertises the existence of the technical college but not the National Park Service. We had to drive around the entire complex twice before figuring out how to work our way around to the right spot.
When we finally got to the site itself, the Main Armory Building looked large and imposing from the outside. We walked into the building through a slightly shabby entrance and hallway that displayed on the left photographs of all the armory’s many commandants over the years. Beyond that we continued into the massive museum space that contains, well, guns. Hundreds of them, covering some two centuries of development. Pistols, muskets, bolt-action rifles, semi-automatic rifles, machine guns, they’re all there. All these hundreds of weapons are displayed in glass cases on one side of the museum. On the other side there are exhibited large pieces of machinery that were used to manufacture these weapons. Also displayed prominently is the museum’s massive “Organ of Muskets,” an actual double rack arrangement originally used to stack newly manufactured muskets. It was racks such as these that inspired Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s anti-war poem, “The Arsenal at Springfield,” after his visit to the armory in 1843.
And that’s pretty much it. No interactive exhibits. No rangers giving talks or tours. There was an introductory video—you’ve got to have that—but in interpretive terms, there really wasn’t much else. There was one ranger at an information desk, but she was not particularly helpful. For a building this size, it was eerily quiet. The few individuals like me who came in wandered around the massive space, seemingly overwhelmed by the huge variety of firearms exhibits placed in what seemed like an endless array of static displays. I’d never been in a National Park Service building that was so large yet in which so little seemed to be going on. Now admittedly we were there near the end of the day (it was a weekday in September), but when I asked there seemed to have been no scheduled talks or tours for the entire day. The web site does state that there are “ranger-guided tours, both indoors and (weather permitting) outdoors,” but is unclear about when these are offered.
Don’t get me wrong. The displays look impressive, in an orderly, serried-ranks sort of way. And if you’re already a serious, well-informed gun enthusiast who knows your .303 Lee Enfield from your M1 Garand, you’ll have a great time checking out all these hundred of weapons in their glass cases. But your average person trying to get to grips with the real meaning of this place in America’s story is going to struggle. Context is lacking. Also, I’ve noticed how some NPS sites have a definite buzz about them, even when they’re fairly quiet. This place had no buzz. Overall, I was left with the impression that we had entered the Historic Site That Time Forgot. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps the park service is uncomfortable about appearing to promote or celebrate the story of federal firearms production. Perhaps the idea of guns and interactivity smacks too much of “Call of Duty” and other first-person shooter video games. Regardless, if the park service’s goal was to make guns seem boring, they succeeded.
By the way, I had to laugh at the official NPS sign at the main door entering the building, stating that firearms are not permitted inside. This isn’t a case of a park official developing a sense of humor. A change in federal law that took effect in 2010 allows gun owners to legally carry firearms on park service land, though not in public buildings. Ever since, the NPS has had to plaster these no-firearms stickers on buildings to which the public has access. It was particularly ironic to see one of them adorning the entrance of a building that has seen countless thousands of weapons pass through its doors.
Springfield Armory NHS. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/spar/index.htm