I’m always happy that I have the Monday around my birthday off for Martin Luther King Day. Besides contemplating the message the great man put forth I like to try and get out of the house and do something with my free time. This year I decided to go and see something educational. There’s not much close to where I live for a day trip that I’ve not been to already. One place I’ve passed the sign for a number of times (without stopping) is a museum in nearby Danville, VA. It is certainly educational and unusual since it’s the AAF Tank Museum.

While not exactly of the martial inclination I do take an interest in history and enjoy looking at the machinery of the military. So much effort and ingenuity is put into the vast and varied equipment needed to supply, transport, and provide the means of aggression. There’s an amazing variety of this here but also as interesting is the presentation. This isn’t a national or state museum but a private concern and shows the quirkiness inherent in a labor of love which starts with the building. I assume it was once some industrial facility because it is a huge and labyrinthine place that with ever turn divulges something you may not have expected.

There are tanks and more tanks arrayed in rows in the giants halls from many different countries and periods of the 20th century. The focus is on American equipment but hulking metal monsters from enemy and allies alike are sprinkled throughout. Some are surrounded by uniformed manikins and artificial terrain to create a bit of a surreal setting. This is certainly the quirky bit as it’s not very convincing and even a somewhat disturbing. It’s like seeing the wooden inhabitants of a department store window display come to the conclusion they’ve had enough and decide to arm.

There is a lot more than Tanks, however. Motorized gun carriages, half-tracks, armored scout cars, troop transports, motorcycles, mortars, field artillery, bombs, a helicopter, and even bicycles are spread about the place. A large missile for delivering a nuclear payload sits in a row near a min-sub. Quite a variety and every object has a description of its purpose and history.

After you’ve wandered the halls full of both restored and rusty denizens you enter a smaller area that seems to have possibly been the offices of the prior commercial tenant. This has to be one of the most confusing jumbles of halls and rooms I’ve even seen. The contents are just as remarkable as the rest of the place, however. Rooms of military optics, communication equipment, heavy and shoulder arms, memorabilia, and toys are found here. Oh, and what seems like countless uniformed manikins which makes me think this is where the ones by the tanks escaped from. The Hall of Generals has many representatives like this kitted out in their proper uniforms and I really mean a lot! There are also displays of non-general staff as well going back to examples of such things as Austro-Hungarian uniforms. Just to add some additional oddness to this mute army is a display of tiny children’s mock uniforms. Then there are the hats. Row after row of headgear from all eras is packed into glass display cases. Beautiful ornate Imperial helmets share space with cloth caps in the isles. Women’s service millinery is represented in one isle just in case you forget that they served as well.

It’s the unexpected surprises that pop up which can really make you scratch your head. In back of one area was a poorly done representation of the “Star Gate” from the eponymous movie and TV show. Not sure what that was about. Also, a giant battle theater for remote controlled tanks takes up a large chunk of floor space. Wandering alone most of the time in this wonderland made it all the more eerie. I’ve worked in manufacturing facilities and an alien feeling is created by seeing the displays where large and noisy factory equipment should be.

I both had fun and learned a great deal that I’ll never be able to use in a dinner conversation (unless I’m having dinner in a mess hall). Peruse the pictures below to help illustrate my comments above.

  1. January 22, 2010, 11:24 pm

    Love that mini sub!

    1. TAO
      January 22, 2010, 11:57 pm

      Yes, the sub was cool. I remember it from the movie.

  2. hazel
    January 23, 2010, 2:59 am

    a roomful of heads! are they all smiling?

  3. January 23, 2010, 8:26 am

    Tanks are neat, but there is nothing like having one on the road in front of you and you’re in a Toyota Corolla. It really drives home how large they are, something I once experienced while living near Ft. Benning, GA.

  4. TAO
    January 23, 2010, 11:20 am

    Hazel: Would you smile without your body attached?
    Julie: I wouldn’t want to be in tank traffic.

  5. February 20, 2010, 4:05 am

    The last time I saw an exhibit like this was at the Australian War Memorial Museum. I liked how they exhibited in context – each tank with its own story!

    1. TAO
      February 20, 2010, 11:24 am

      Mona: I like museums like this even though I’m certainly not a fan of conflict. The history of anything intrigues me. I did a quick visit to the Imperial War Museum in London years ago and I expect that is a lot like the Australian one.