PUNTA GORDA — The Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda has unveiled extraordinary plans for the museum’s move, expected next spring from Fishermen’s Village to the elaborate confines of the nearby IMPAC building, a former multi-million dollar business conference and training center.

The move will be all of a couple blocks down West Marion Avenue, but it will constitute a world of difference for the historic depository of veterans and military history.

The museum’s display and office space will be tripled.

The new facility will include six galleries, a 240-seat state-of-the-art theater, a large, ornate, technologically enhanced conference room, an actual trench to display World War I trench warfare, and a “Future Force Academy,” where museum members, through simulators and virtual reality, can inject themselves into major military battles across the centuries.

While veteran volunteers will continue to tell the stories beyond the artifacts, the museum will also include electronic docents and iPad and app technology so visitors can take themselves through a self-guided tour of the museum.

“It’s time,” museum Executive Director Gary Butler said, “to get the community excited again.”

He took the Sun through a tour of the new museum. It will be housed — with a striking, new, upscale design — in two stories of IMPAC’s former entrance building. It will be, he assured, “world class.”

On the first floor, the galleries are being designed to lead visitors on a chronological journey through military history, from its pre-revolutionary war beginning, through the 19th and 20th centuries, and into the present.

The journey will include interactive exhibits and displays, with audio and visual sights and sounds, coursing through the Seminole Wars, the Mexican-American War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam, among other conflicts.

There also will be a large special exhibit area lined by distinctive glass and polished wood display cases, reminiscent of an accomplished business environment.

It will be a whole new milieu for the museum’s more than 20,000 artifacts, 4,000 literary titles and 1,000 documents, some of which are now in storage in the museum’s present location at Fishermen’s Village. But the museum will be much more than a display of military history and artifacts, according to Butler.

“It’s really about advocacy. Advocating for veterans to help the community at large truly understand their sacrifice – whether it was the ultimate sacrifice or years of service.

“The purpose really is so much greater than stories about artifacts. It’s really about helping the community grasp, engage and embrace what our veterans have done, remembering and honoring all who serve, opening new fields of interests for people of all ages, especially the next generation.”

The first floor, open free to the public, will include two major enhancements to the museum’s operations:

A spacious, modern 240-seat theater, which Butler said, can be used for performances, movies, plays, chorus and other events for veterans, students and community.

IMPAC’s imposing, semi-circular conference room, with 12 portals featuring individual touch screens. It will be called the “Hall of Heroes,” enabling individuals, through hologram technology, to call up displays on famous military figures, Medal of Honor recipients, and the museum’s members of its Wall of Warriors. The room also will be available for special veterans’ ceremonies.

The second floor, for museum members only, will feature a large library and research facility and virtual, technological involvement for individuals in historic military encounters — called the “Future Force Academy.” Through it, members will be able to inject themselves, personally, flying a plane, commanding a submarine, taking part in battle scenes, like the Battle of Midway and Gettysburg.

The first floor, Butler said, “will be a journey through history. Upstairs, you become a player in military history. A pilot. A soldier in battle. You become the character. You’re in it. You become part of history.”

The Military Heritage Museum began some 20 years ago in closets at an American Legion and a VFW post. It wended its way through a shopping center in Burnt Store Isles, to a small location, then a larger one at Fishermen’s Village, where it’s been since 2007. It has drawn more than 500,000 visitors since then. It is operated by a small staff and some 75 volunteers.

The facilities at IMPAC are being designed by Jason Communications, of Manassas, Va. The transition between the two buildings is being managed by Binnacle Advisory Group LLC, of Punta Gorda.

There’s still a significant fundraising goal to meet to facilitate the move — $650,000 — according to Butler.

“We’re 20 percent there,” he said.

But he’s confident the community will come through. The Charlotte Community Fund has given a grant in support of the Future Force Academy.

If all goes as planned, he said, a ribbon-cutting ceremony will be scheduled by spring, and the facility plans to open sometime between March 1 and April 30.

For further information on the museum and its move, access info@freedomisntfree.com. Its website is www.freedomisntfree.com.


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