Permanent closing of Aberdeen Proving Ground museum a bad idea [Editorial]

The loss of the museum on Aberdeen Proving Ground, which appears to be a casualty of the fight in Washington, D.C., over the federal budget, is unnecessary and an insult to the community.

There had been a museum on Aberdeen Proving Ground since seven years after the post opened. Considering the post is four years shy of a century old, the APG museum is something of an artifact unto itself.

In its most recent incarnation, the APG reliquary was officially the Army Ordnance Museum and had a practical military function. It was a repository associated with the Army Ordnance Center and School and its relics were used to teach new generations of soldiers how new generations of weapons have come into being over the centuries. Learning about the evolution of the advanced weapon system of one era leads to that weapon system being improved and, eventually, to it being replaced and relegated to museum status.

In short, having the museum associated with the school was integral to the advancement of military technology. It was the embodiment of what history is all about: remembering the past so as not to repeat mistakes.

The museum also spawned an unlikely TV star, at least among the audience for shows appearing on cable channels like The History Channel, Discovery and The Learning Channel. William F. "Jack" Atwater, a veteran of the Vietnam War, who earned a master of arts degree in military history after his combat experience, served as director of the Aberdeen museum from 1989 until its local closure during the BRAC process.

Dr. Atwater retired in 2007, but key components of the museum he managed for nearly two decades were not mothballed. They were sent, along with the Ordnance Center and School, to Fort Lee, Va.

Though the Ordnance Museum had a practical use for the Army when it was open at APG, it also had evolved into one of Harford County's most visited tourist attractions. The Ordnance Center and School estimates the museum drew in the neighborhood of 60,000 visitors annually. A community volunteer group that helped to support the museum estimates the total to have been as high as 200,000 visitors a year. The higher number is not beyond the realm of possibilities. In the years before 2001, when security was dramatically tightened, the museum was a quick visit for people traveling on I-95 and looking to make a short excursion.

Harford County government's various tourism promotion arms over the years all have heralded the museum as one of the county's primary attractions.

Its loss is especially disheartening because, while the museum's artifacts were collected and used by the Army, its building received substantial community support from organizations like the Aberdeen Proving Ground Museum Foundation. The foundation, and groups like it, have been around since the Vietnam War era, supporting the museum by raising money and promoting the facility.

It was also through the efforts of the volunteer group that a commitment from the Army was secured when the Ordnance Museum closed, another museum would be organized to highlight the Army's history as it relates to Harford County. The organization had committed to raising money to assist with opening a new museum, with about $200,000 collected so far.

This was a wonderful idea. It made sense that the Ordnance Museum would travel with the Ordnance School, but it also made sense that a military installation with nearly 100 years of ties to Harford County should have a museum highlighting the relationship between Harford County and the Army, as well as the Army's many accomplishments made possible by work done at APG.

Failure on the part of the Army leadership and the federal government to honor this commitment is a snub not only to the greater Harford County community, but also to the generations of soldiers, scientists and civilians who have served their country at APG.

Technically speaking, the loss of funding for the new museum at APG wasn't likely the result of the wholesale cuts in federal spending known as sequester, as a good deal of military spending is unaffected. Still, it's likely the museum's having been excised from the National Defense Authorization act of 2014 is rooted in a cut first, ask questions later mentality.

This action shows, however, that not every cut is a good move, and every dollar not spent is not necessarily the same thing as a dollar saved. A lot has been invested over the generations in having a museum at APG and it has been demonstrated that such a museum can have practical value for both the armed forces and the community.

Failing to follow through on reopening a museum at APG is kind of like saving money by not paying to winterize a boat or summer cabin. There's a good chance the costs incurred in the future will make this year's federal savings look foolish.

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