EVERETT — You are the head of an African nation where people are dying of thirst. Radical rebels are demanding you step down.
What do you do? Negotiate? Mobilize your military? Nothing?
The clock is ticking. Thousands of lives — maybe even your own — hang in the balance.
The hypothetical scenario is part of the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum’s effort to help visitors explore the factors and decisions that can lead to war. The exhibit “Why War?” unpacks the causes and consequences of armed conflict. The permanent installation opened in early March at the museum’s Paine Field location.
“This isn’t People magazine history,” said Adrian Hunt, the collection’s executive director. “This is based on serious scholarship.”
Design consultants and museum staff translated that high-level research into material that is simple enough for grade school children to grasp without gutting the topic’s complexity. Greg Cashman, a retired political science professor at Salisbury University in Maryland, guided the exhibit.
The installation focuses on the most common factors, identified by decades of empirical research and in case studies, said Cashman, who has spent more than 20 years studying the topic. His textbook “What Causes War?” is read by college students across the country.
Those factors include national rivalry, territorial disputes, power shifts and domestic turmoil.
Hunt contacted Cashman after reading the book. Cashman said he never expected to work on a project such as this exhibit.
“I wasn’t sure how they’d make it work,” he said. “It’s really quite amazing.”
The museum hired Seattle-based Belle & Wissell to design the exhibit.
The exhibit includes giant touchscreen monitors that allow visitors to explore the causes of various conflicts involving the United States. Then there are the hot-seat scenarios where visitors play national leader in a series of hypothetical scenarios.
The collection’s owner, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, wanted the exhibit to talk about the consequences of war, Hunt said.
The exhibit includes a room on nuclear war with replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy — the two atomic bombs dropped by U.S. forces on Japan during World War II. On a wall are copies of a letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 discussing the possibilities of developing nuclear weapons and a few pages from Major Robert Lewis’ eyewitness account of dropping the first atomic bomb, Little Boy, on Hiroshima on Aug. 6.
After the bomb exploded above the city, the B-29 Enola Gay turned away, and “there in front of our eyes was without a doubt the greatest explosion man has ever witnessed,” wrote Lewis, the Boeing airplane’s co-pilot.
Allen owns the originals of the Einstein letter and Lewis account, which are archived for safekeeping.
In another room, visitors can explore the human side of conflict, including sculptures crafted out of artillery shells during World War I. Visitors can digitally thumb through interactive displays recounting the wartime experiences of children, women and men.
The exhibit is “an explicit change in the direction of the work we do,” Hunt said.
It is meant to attract younger visitors and provide context for the painstakingly restored tanks, aircraft and other war machines on display at the museum at Paine Field south of Everett. The museum is looking to add another hangar to accommodate its growing collection. Its two hangars are already crowded with 45 big war machines, including 26 aircraft and 19 tanks, vehicles and weapon systems.
“We’re not interested in being the best museum in Everett or in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “We’re just interested in being the best, period.”