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War history museum plans met with resistance in Stow

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By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, AUG. 26, 2015….Plans for a non-profit educational institution to expand its collection of tanks and warplanes into a full-scale museum about American combat will be back before the Stow Planning Board Wednesday evening.

The Collings Foundation has over the years amassed an impressive collection of tanks in Stow, including a World War I specimen, and military aircraft, which the organization flies around the country.

The planning board has been wrestling with whether the organization’s expansion plans qualify under a statutory exemption relieving educational institutions from some local zoning restrictions. The foundation maintains the museum also qualifies under the town’s own zoning bylaw pertaining to the rights of educational institutions.

An entrepreneur and Harvard Business School graduate, Bob Collings started collecting war memorabilia in the 1970s, and the collection has grown in large part through contributions. The plan is to construct a 67,000-square-foot American Heritage Museum providing historical lessons on the shaping of the country from the American Revolution to the Afghanistan War.

“It’s a living history experience,” Collings told the News Service.

Initial objections to the museum concerned traffic, Collings said, and he has since secured necessary approvals from the nearby town of Hudson to build a new road to the site. Collings said the 26 tanks on the property “seems to catch the imagination of our naysayers.” Of the educational events held, a World War II reenactment of a battle between Nazi Germany and the Allies is “absolutely” the most controversial, he said.

New England Museum Association Executive Director Dan Yaeger said he is not completely familiar with Collings site, but the practice of re-enacting armed conflicts is undertaken for educational purposes around the country. Civil War battles are re-enacted in places around the country. In Massachusetts, faux fighters square off as British regulars and colonial rebels re-enact the early skirmishes of the American Revolution.

Yaeger, whose organization provides professional development and advocacy for museums throughout New England, said re-enactments provide a “great spectacle” and allow visitors to “feel as though they’re in the moment, so to speak.”

The Boston Globe covered the issue earlier in August and quoted a nearby resident complaining that “noise-wise, it’s really annoying.”

In March, at the direction of the board of selectmen, the town issued a cease and desist order, which the foundation said “ended aircraft flight activities that have been ongoing continuously for 37 years.”

The Collings Foundation has enlisted the public relations assistance of Eric Fehrnstrom, who was spokesman for Mitt Romney in the governor’s office and on the presidential campaign trail.

The foundation opines that the planning board’s deliberations have “been painful” at times, and claims that two board meetings centered on determining “what is education?” Minutes of the planning board attest to lengthy deliberations. On July 29 the board took a straw poll vote on whether the primary purpose of the site is educational and it failed 2-3.

Lori Clark, chair of the planning board, did not respond to a voicemail. In the minutes of the July meeting when the straw poll was held, Clark described herself as “wavering” on the matter. The Globe reported planning board members declined comment on the issue.

Throughout the centuries decisions about whether and how the United States should engage militarily have been charged political issues. Collings said the organization takes a straightforward approach to the history.

“We try not to be political,” Collings told the News Service. He said, “We just try to be historically correct.”

Collings says he counts among his supporters Thomas Hudner, a U.S. Navy veteran, former state veterans services commissioner, and Fall River native, now 90 years old, who earned the Medal of Honor for a daring attempt to rescue a fellow pilot in the Korean War in 1950.

To help craft exhibits the foundation has enlisted Boston Productions Inc., a firm whose clients include the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and other esteemed institutions.

A layout of the proposed museum provided by the Collings Foundation indicates substantial attention to World War II, including exhibits labeled “Defense of the Reich,” which depicts Hitler Youth operating a flak gun, and “Crossing the Rhine,” which depicts African American troops who participated in the invasion that helped end the war.

Special events held on the site, include a classic car exhibition and the “Race of the Century,” which pits a stage coach against a steam-powered car, a bicycle and other vehicles from the early 20th century, Collings said.

Collings said the loudest event is the World War II battle re-enactment, though he argued the property’s seclusion limits the effect on neighbors. The foundation’s website describes the “Battle for the Airfield” as depicting the advancement of allied troops, involving 300 re-enactors. Camps of soldiers from either side are also set up, allowing visitors to interact with the participants, and veterans of the war will participate in a roundtable, according to the foundation’s website.

Likening the experience to Old Sturbridge Village, which recreates an 1830s New England town, Collings stressed that the foundation’s message is not pro-war.

“We’re not encouraging war,” Collings said. He said, “We’re not war mongers by any means.”