Museum looking to bring World War I to life
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer | Published: October 9, 2016
RALEIGH, N.C. (Tribune News Service) -- North Carolina is preparing for war.
And the man leading that effort, R. Jackson Marshall, hovers over a map in his office at the North Carolina Museum of History.
His finger traces a large trench, pointing out the locations of American rifles, German machine guns, trip wires and booby traps.
Marshall and the rest of the Museum of History have a daunting task ahead of them.
They are looking to bring to life World War I in time for the 100th anniversary of the United States' entry into the Great War.
The goal, Marshall said, is to create an experience for visitors to the museum's special WWI exhibit, which will be unveiled in April.
"We did not want this to be just a gallery of cases," he said. "We want this to be an experience."
Visitors will be asked to do more than learn about the war, he said. They'll be asked to step into the shoes of one of the roughly 86,000 North Carolina soldiers to serve in the conflict.
"It's a theatrical presentation," Marshall said. "It's not just a North Carolina history exhibit. It's a U.S. history exhibit."
On the museum's third floor, the battlefield is taking shape.
Behind closed doors, crews are building the massive trenches that will wind through the planned 6,500-square-foot exhibit.
Robert Stone, an exhibit artist with the museum, is creating the trenches from a skeleton of wood, covered in mesh and papercrete.
"There's no instruction manual on how to build this," he said. "It's been a challenge. But it's also been fun."
Stone and his workers labor in a room that is closing in on them as the trench system takes shape.
"It's like a huge environmental structure," he said. "We really want them to feel like they're walking through a trench."
At the same time, other aspects of the exhibit also are taking shape.
Against one wall, newly filled sandbags are stacked ready to be placed above the trenches. Piles of aged wood are scattered about. And fake barbed wire sits ready to add another touch of realism.
"There are a lot of details," Stone said. "This is the most labor intensive exhibit we've had in 12 to 15 years."
Marshall, deputy director of the Division of State History Museums, said the Museum of History exhibit will be the centerpiece of a massive state-wide project aimed at remembering the Great War.
In addition to the museum's war exhibit, a separate look at the effects of the war on the North Carolina home front also will open in the downtown Raleigh museum. Both will be free exhibits.
The state also will publish and republish books on the war, coordinate exhibits at other state museums and plant poppies along state highways to honor the war dead.
"There are a lot of moving parts," Marshall said. "It's a statewide centennial project. But the biggest part is this exhibit."
Marshall said the museum had no shortage of options for the exhibit.
Harnessing an existing state collection, while pulling from private collections, more than 500 artifacts from the war will be on display, from weapons, body armor and helmets pocked by dents and holes to trench art -- bullets and artillery shells worked into ornate cigarette cases, vases and more -- and relics from the battlefields of Europe.
The exhibit also will make ample use of war photography and footage from the battlefields.
"The topic is just massive, and you can get deep in the weeds in any direction," Marshall said.
But for the 100th anniversary of U.S. involvement in the war, Marshall said the focus would be on recreating the experiences of soldiers, specifically North Carolina troops.
A series of videos will introduce the war, setting the stage for the rest of the exhibit, which begins with the U.S as neutral in the war effort, even as many North Carolina residents weren't, Marshall said.
Long before the war officially began for the U.S., local men and women volunteered to serve overseas, joining foreign armies and dying on battlefields far from their home state.
The exhibit will address the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, which contributed to the eventual U.S. entry into the war.
A North Carolina man survived that attack, Marshall said. And the museum will display his pocket watch, forever stopped when it hit the water when the ship sank.
Next will come a recruiting station, Marshall said. And historical footage of American soldiers training for war.
Many of those soldiers would have little more than two weeks of training before facing the horrors of war, Marshall said. Sometimes, they trained with wooden sticks for weapons and logs for canons.
"We were totally unprepared, but we still just piled over," Marshall said, explaining how the U.S. didn't have enough transport ships, so it used English cattle boats to ferry its men across the ocean.
The exhibit will pay particular attention to the two units where most North Carolina troops served: The 30th Infantry Division and 81st Infantry Division.
But Marshall said North Carolina troops served in every major WWI unit.
Wherever possible, the exhibit will tell the stories of those men, rather than faceless soldiers.
"We're speaking in first person," he said. "You see a real person, rather than a blank face."
Marshall has devoted the last 25 years to researching WWI. He's walked European battlefields and searched for relics amid freshly plowed fields, inspired by childhood talks with a WWI veteran grandfather.
Much of the interviews, letters and archives that will be on display or used to create the exhibit come from his own research, he said.
The exhibit will include a diorama showing a WWI battlefield. There will be interactive videos, a recreated field hospital and a scavenger hunt.
But the centerpiece of the exhibit will be the towering trenches.
Visitors will wind their way through the exhibit, peering through viewfinders to look at the overhanding battlefield and stopping as they are confronted by the video faces of other soldiers.
At first, it will be a French soldier, warning you in his native tongue. Then a German soldier, barking commands. Neither video will have subtitles.
"How do you know, as a North Carolina farm boy, what he's saying?"
Marshall said. "That's the North Carolina experience."
Marshall said the exhibit won't be for everyone.
Visitors will come under attack as they move from the allied trenches to recreated German trenches, complete with booby traps and the sounds of a German MG08 machine gun.
As visitors walk through an exposed area between the two trench systems, they'll witness the horrors of the war as they watch soldiers being cut down in a clip from the 1930 film "All Quiet on the Western Front."
"They went across open ground, and the Germans just cut them up," Marshall said.
At the start of the war, opposing armies used Napoleonic tactics, he said. Armies stood in a line and traded volleys.
But new technologies, such as rapid fire machine guns, made those tactics suicide missions. Instead, the war ground to a slow crawl as armies dug into trenches.
"It was the last of the 19th century wars fought with 20th century technology," Marshall said. And when American troops joined the war, they were still using Civil War tactics.
In one battle, Marines charged in a straight line across an open wheat field to attack fixed German machine gun positions.
"They were dumbfounded when they saw the Marines coming," Marshall said of the German troops, who quickly opened fire with their devastating weapons.
American military leaders pushed their men relentlessly, he said. They were determined to win the war if not by skill, then by brute force.
In a matter of hours in one battle at Bellicourt, France, the 30th Infantry Division broke the German lines, but it came at a huge cost, with 3,000 men killed.
"The attack was successful, but we paid for it," Marshall said. "It was absolutely brutal."
The end of the exhibit will examine the changes that came after the war, with the map of Europe forever changed. It also will foreshadow the beginnings of World War II.
The World War I exhibit will open April 8. Officials said it will be on display until January 2019.
(c) 2016 The Fayetteville Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.