When you enter the hallowed halls of the National Veterans Memorial and Museum (NVMM) in Columbus, Ohio, you might be struck by what's missing as by what's displayed. Occupying pride of place in the grand atrium isn't some ode to militarism — say, a fighter plane or a tank — but a series of massive black-and-white portraits by photojournalist Stacy Pearsall.
A former Air Force combat photographer and Bronze Star Medal recipient, Pearsall retired from military service after a roadside bomb blast in Iraq and now spends her time photographing thousands of veterans in all 50 states. The resulting images, which hang from the rafters, are two-sided: One shows a recent portrait from civilian life and the other an archival shot from active-duty days.
These men and women of all ages and races — some posed with service dogs, others using wheelchairs — perfectly encapsulate the memorial's mission: to tell the individual stories of those who served. But what makes this place so quietly radical is how it expands that narrative to tell the whole picture of a service member's experience — not just the heroism of combat but also the bravery of deciding to enlist, the difficulty of transitioning back into civilian life, the harsh realities of trauma and the sacrifices made by family members and friends back home.
Plan your trip
Location: 300 W. Broad St., just across the Discovery Bridge from downtown.
Getting there: The museum is accessible by foot from much of downtown, including across the flat and pedestrian-friendly Discovery Bridge. If you arrive by car, paid parking is available in an on-site lot. City buses (lines 10 and 12) make stops here, too.
Visit: Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Closed New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas)
Admission: $17 for adults ($15 for seniors 65+); free for veterans, active-duty military and Gold Star families.
Tours: Daily guided tours at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Best season to visit: Memorial Day in spring and Veterans Day in autumn are especially inspiring times, with events that typically include a benefit run/walk and a poignant rooftop ceremony.
Best time to visit: In late fall or winter, Cloyd suggests visiting around sunset. “The sun coming through the campaign-ribbon glass on the mezzanine level reflects across the handrail and down to the first floor wall, creating a rainbow of stripes."
Accessibility: The entrance is a short walk from the parking lot. Those using wheelchairs or walkers can enter through the Group Entry doorway directly across from the lot, accessed via a flat path. Exhibits are accessible by elevator or ramp. Video exhibits are closed-captioned, and visitors guides are available in large print and braille. Wheelchairs are available at no charge (first come, first served). Service dogs and miniature horses are welcome.
Opened in 2018 on a scenic bend in the Scioto River, the new NVMM can trace its roots to Ohio billionaire and philanthropist Les Wexner, the founder of L Brands (which started with the Limited and now includes Bath & Body Works and Victoria's Secret). The Franklin County Veterans Memorial had stood on this spot since 1955, and Wexner was on record calling the old building “hideous.” He suggested that rather than spend tax dollars to refurbish the aging institution, the city of Columbus should tear it down and build a new showstopping museum, funded heavily by private donations. He and his wife, Abigail, eventually kicked in $40.6 million of the more than $82 million raised.
Wexner reached out to former Ohio senator and Marine Corps veteran John Glenn to help usher the memorial into a reality, and soon Gov. John Kasich pitched the idea of expanding it from a county memorial to a statewide one. The project kept snowballing, gaining more and more support, until it made its way to the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers officially designated it a “national” museum in 2018. Gen. Colin Powell gave the keynote speech at its dedication later that year, on Oct. 27.
The building's design strikes a delicate balance between the timeless and the contemporary, the organic and the rock solid. The architectural team transformed 28 million pounds of concrete into a swooping, curving monument that calls to mind crisscrossing ribbons frozen in place. The spiral design — with an exterior ramp looping up to a grassy rooftop sanctuary — gives the appearance of New York's Guggenheim Museum, flipped inside out. Keeping all that concrete from feeling oppressively heavy are abundant windows that allow the sun in. And on the mezzanine level, they take the form of vertical strips of stained glass, inspired by military campaign ribbons, which bathe the minimalist interiors in warm colorful light.
What you'll see
Inside, exhibits present a chronological timeline of U.S. military history, starting with the American Revolution and continuing through to today. Fourteen thematic alcoves along the way give you glimpses into the experience of serving, from deployment and combat to reentry into civilian life. Throughout, the exhibits are peppered with letters, quotes, video messages and personal artifacts, such as a World War I YMCA songbook, a World War II service banner that hung in a military family's window and a Vietnam War vet's motorcycle vest covered in POW/MIA patches. This isn't a museum dedicated to objects or memorabilia, however; these items merely illustrate the personal stories being told rather than the other way around.
"Every story has meaning and importance,” says Andy Cloyd, the museum's director, when asked if any resonate particularly strongly with him. “If I had to choose, I would probably lean toward the story of former Army Maj. Joshua Mantz."