NEWS | Nov. 10, 2015

Army Women's Museum earns rare accreditation

By Terrance Bell U.S. Army Garrison Fort Lee

FORT LEE, Va. - The only museum in the world dedicated to sharing the history of America’s female warriors has earned its accreditation.

Fort Lee’s U.S. Army Women’s Museum received news of its accreditation Nov. 3 from the American Alliance of Museums, an advocacy organization that includes 4,000 institutional members and 25,000 museum professionals.

The AWM, which opened its doors here in 2001, is one of only five Army museums (62 total) currently holding AAM accreditations.  Nationwide, only 3 percent of 30,000 museums are accredited, which makes the award one of distinction, said Tracey Bradford, AWM education director.

“It’s the ultimate compliment from our peers as a professional museum staff,” she said. “There’s no greater achievement than being AAM accredited.”

With roughly 5,000-square-feet of gallery space and 6,700 artifacts, the AWM is both a traditional museum and an educational institution, providing military history training and research support to various members of the community.  That was one of a long list of attributes that helped the facility gain accreditation, according to the AAM award letter.

The AWM “is to be commended for actively seeking opportunities to serve its local educational community and act as a bridge for areas of common interest between the military and civilians,” the award letter also cited. “It is clear from the site visit report the museum staff works well as a team and leadership excels at building positive relationships with Army administrators and external partners.”

The community partnerships the letter speaks of includes local school systems. AWM’s K-12 programs provided women’s military history lessons to more than 7,000 local students last year and a high of 12,000 in 2010.

The letter also commended the AWM for an operational effectiveness that rises far beyond its funding and staffing; its stewardship as a publicly funded entity; and its strategic planning.

Taking roughly two years to complete, the accreditation process covered every aspect of the facility’s operation, said Bradford. It included a site visit, peer review and detailed self-study, which was quite an arduous assessment requirement.

“We really had to go back and look at the practices we have here; what’s already in place and what can be improved,” said Bradford. “It’s a very lengthy process.”

The two-day site visit in September concluded the evaluations. It was conducted by the director of the National Museum of the Marine Corps and the senior curator, Naval History and Heritage Command. AWM collection specialist Ron Bingham said the visit was a series of “white glove” inspections that were both thorough and detailed.

“They were looking for things the public never sees,” he said.

Amanda Vtipilson, the AWM’s education curator, said the accreditation is a crown of recognition for what she has always known about the museum – that it has been an efficient, well-run facility since she began working there two years ago.  

“We knew we were doing a good job,” she said, “but to have someone else come in ... to say we were doing more than anyone had before, and who were impressed by our abilities and what we had accomplished was quite satisfying.”

On the day the AWM received the accreditation news, Vtipilson said the staff was elated, taking group pictures to document the moment. The response was justified, she said, because staff members have grown as a unit while working to further the museum’s mission.

“We are a team here, and it has been personally fulfilling because we accomplished something together,” she said, noting they even called in two former staff members “because they were essential to the accreditation.”

The award also has fueled the museum’s plans for the near future, said Bradford. The staff plans to expand its gallery space by 5,000 square feet and find more innovative ways to tell the stories of women Soldiers.

The AAM accreditation was initiated by Dr. Francois Bonnell, the museum director who was not available for an interview.  It is the facility’s first since it moved here in 1999 from Fort McClellan, Ala. 

Now that the AWM has earned its accreditation, it is subject to periodic reviews.

The AWM drew more than 50,000 visitors last year.