In a museum dedicated to helping expand what people know, a new exhibit on World War I exploits visitors’ fear of what they don’t know as they traverse the muddy trenches of Europe’s Western Front.
“North Carolina & World War I,” set to open just days before the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into the conflict, is the N.C. Museum of History’s largest-ever “environmental” exhibit. Since September, the museum has recreated the hallmark feature of the World War I soldier’s experience – trench warfare – transforming a 6,500-square-foot space into a dirt-walled maze. Artifact displays are built into the trench walls, and sensors detect visitors’ movements to set off videos and sound effects. The idea is to feel, rather than read about, what it was like to spend weeks or months fighting a battle from a hole in the ground.
As they go around each hairpin turn, visitors don’t know whether they’ll meet an overzealous drill sergeant, an enemy combatant shouting in a foreign language or a masked soldier walking through an eerie green cloud of chlorine gas.
“It’s an experience, not an exhibit,” said Jackson Marshall, deputy director, project manager and exhibit curator at the museum, who worked with staff to convey the big picture of the war without overwhelming people with too much information, in a way that would be moving but not traumatizing.
World War I started in 1914 when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Archduke of Austria-Hungary. It spread as nations demonstrated loyalty to their allies, with the U.S. staying out of the fray until Germany refused to stop attacking passenger and merchant ships, which often carried American civilians.
Marshall’s interest in the war began half a century later. Growing up on a family farm in Forsyth County, he came across a uniform and gas mask his grandfather had stowed away after returning, wounded, from service overseas.
“He wouldn’t talk about it,” Marshall said; not with adults and certainly not with an impressionable young boy.
In school at Wake Forest University, Marshall launched an oral history project to gather the stories of World War I vets, whom he found by calling local churches and asking around at gas stations. Like Marshall’s grandfather, many of those vets had never spoken of their service.
When they did, Marshall said, it was because in their old age, they worried the glory and grief of their war would be forgotten.
Marshall published their stories in a book in 1998 and drew from their experiences as he guided the development of the museum exhibit.
Staple guns and packing peanuts
The show opens, literally and metaphorically, with a wide view of what was going on in the world just before the war began. Child actors on life-size video-screens greet visitors at the exhibit entrance. They speak the languages of the nations they represent, expressing worry, defiance, even eagerness for the prospect of war. The space and the focus then narrows as visitors go into a Navy ship, where a rolling sea is visible through portholes. Next is a 6-by-6-foot diorama of a European battlefield with thousands of inch-high soldiers waging battle from a labyrinth of trenches.
The diorama was a war game Marshall built with his two sons, who got caught up in his fascination with World War I and went overseas with him on battlefield tours. Now in their 20s, both are helping build the museum exhibit, which will cost about $160,000, all from private donations.
The trench, crafted by museum artist Robert Stone and his team, is the centerpiece of the museum and has taken thousands of man-hours to build, a glacial pace compared to the British soldiers’ pace. Historians say the standard was for 450 men, working at night, six hours to dig 275 yards of trench 6 to 7 feet deep.
“This has been the most labor-intensive exhibit we’ve ever built,” Stone said. After studying and experimenting with different techniques, Stone framed the trench system in 2-by-4s. He used wire to give it an undulating shape and mesh on top of that. He brought in a portable cement mixer and made wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow-full of “papercrets,” a concrete and paper mix that hardens solid as it dries. It’s the reddish-brown of fresh-turned dirt.
The walls are topped with many hundreds of burlap sandbags, some of them old Army surplus and others new, stained to match. A group of home-schooled students and parents made several trips to the museum to fill the bags with a lightweight mixture of biodegradable packing peanuts and vermiculite.
The main tools of the war were shovels, pick-axes and machine guns. As artists worked to finish the exhibit, their tools included trowels, duct tape, staple guns and at least five colors of gray paint.
Within the walls, Stone made openings in which to display more than 500 artifacts: bottles and metal fragments retrieved from French and Belgian battlefields; uniforms, helmets and mess kits from the museum’s collection; vintage weapons loaned from other collections; and personal items of men from North Carolina who volunteered to fight before the U.S. joined the war in April 1917 or were drafted afterward.
The trench walls also harbor four “funk holes,” dugouts where soldiers retreated deeper into the earth, away from the weather, the metallic sound of digging and the mortars’ whistle and boom.
“The funk holes are my favorite,” Stone said, curling into one.
Modern fire codes required the museum’s trench to be wider than the claustrophobic ones where soldiers spent the war, and its paper-and-concrete surface, which will have to outlast thousands of middle-schoolers during the exhibit’s two-year run, lacks the mucky feel of damp soil. But with the lights down, sandbags stacked atop the parapets, (rubber) rats peering from the shadows, and the sound of shells exploding in the distance, the exhibit gives a sense of the endless, anxious hours that made up so much of what then-President Woodrow Wilson said would be the war to end all wars.
Except for the sensation of being 7 feet below ground, the exhibit never delves too deeply into the myriad factors that brought about World War I or the ways in which the war changed military strategy, technology and medicine, the global power hierarchy and American society.
“But it could serve as a prompt for very good discussions” about those subjects for students all the way up to college, Marshall said.
Throughout the exhibit, visitors can hear the stories of the more than 86,000 North Carolinians who participated in the war, told in their own words by costumed actors in short videos. Sally Bloom and Jerry Taylor collected the first-hand accounts from sources including diaries and letters in the museum and the N.C. Archives, along with Marshall’s oral histories. They recruited 21 actors and produced the videos in the museum’s studio. The videos are found on screens under the lids crates in the trench, and online, where they will be used by teachers across the state who can’t make the field trip to Raleigh.
The bits range from deeply emotional to darkly amusing; in one, sailors talk about the perils of seasickness.
“Kids love vomit,” Bloom said. The museum knows its audience.
To exit, visitors have to cross a version of “No Man’s Land,” the open area between opposing armies’ entrenchments. In the exhibit, as in war, it’s where people are most vulnerable to machine-gun fire.
The six children who appeared at the beginning return at the end to express their satisfaction or regret over how things came out, and their trepidation about another conflict – the one we know as World War II – looming.
“North Carolina & World War I” opens on Saturday, April 8, with day of free activities from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
The day begins with a wreath-laying ceremony at the World War I section of the NC Veterans Memorial on the State Capitol grounds with the N.C. National Guard and World War I reenactors.
The museum is at 5 E. Edenton Street, Raleigh.
Share your family’s World War I stories
During and immediately after the war, the State Archives collected original archival materials to document the effects of the war on the state and its residents. They are still doing so and they need help.
The archives’ Military Collection seeks donations of North Carolina-related original letters, photographs, military training manuals, maps, postcards, wartime diaries and similar items, as well as materials that show what life was like on the home front during WWI. This could include Red Cross records or photographs, war bond drive records or posters, local activities to support the war effort, African American community activities during the war, county or local officials’ wartime activities, and North Carolina military camps operations, such as those at Fort Bragg, which was started as a World War I artillery training camp.