Every museum has a focal point, a centerpiece that draws the most attention from visitors.
In the case of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum, it’s the 1,200 guns that line the glass-enclosed, locked walls.
“It’s like that scene in ‘The Matrix’ where they see all those weapons,” said Mark Kane from the Garrison Public Affairs Office at the Arsenal.
“Most people want to come in and see the small arms. That’s the wow factor when they come in the museum,” said Jodean Murdock, the curator of education. “When kids come in, it’s like, ‘Oh, those guns!’ ”
The collection of arms includes one of only four copies known to exist of a brand of rifle called the Rappahannock, made at the Rappahannock Forge near the Rappahannock River in Virginia. The Arsenal keeps a second one in storage. Another copy is in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and the other is at West Point, the only U.S. Army museum older than the Arsenal’s.
“They have us by about 30 years,” Murdock said.
The Arsenal museum was founded in 1905, spurred by a donation of the government exhibit from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and the relocation of items that were in a warehouse for Civil War ordnance.
While the guns get the most response (and there are another 500 in storage), Murdock said, the museum has lived by the three P’s: people, products and processes.
Through the years, the museum has added interactive aspects, including a computer that’s loaded with history for genealogy, and a monitor that flashes the names and faces of Quad-City area soldiers, sailors and Marines who died during the Gulf Wars. There’s also an interactive area for families where they can take part in hands-on activities that include trying on uniforms.
“They’re always saying museums are competing with Disney World to bring in the audiences,” Murdock said.
The museum was remodeled several years ago so that one-half is history presented in chronological order and the other half is thematic.
Other popular stops include a replica of the bedroom from Quarters One, the residence of the Arsenal’s highest-ranking officer; a scale replica of the Arsenal on a relief map of the Quad-City area; and the preserved body of a horse. There originally were four horses on display, but now there is one, which was put in a glass case four to five years ago.
Currently averaging 24,000-25,000 visitors a year, the museum is expecting a spike with this year’s 150th Arsenal anniversary. Visitors range from Arsenal employees on their lunch hour to military veterans to bus tours and school groups.
“We do get some avid firearms experts who do come here, but for the most part it’s the history and heritage of the Quad-Cities, especially the employees who work here,” Kane said.