ST. PAUL-Many Americans see the First World War as little more than a prelude to World War II, but Minnesota Historical Society curator Brian Horrigan hopes an exhibit opening this weekend in St. Paul will help change that.
"WW1 America" offers museum-goers a glimpse of life in the United States between 1914 and 1919, illustrating how completely the "Great War" shaped nearly all aspects of life in the 20th century.
"What I hope people come away with is seeing this war as transformational," Horrigan said this week, the 100th anniversary of America's entry into the war on April 6, 1917. "Not just in a national sense. Individual lives were transformed. That national transformation is made up of millions of personal transformations."
During the exhibit's opening at the Minnesota History Center on Saturday, visitors will be able to talk with costumed World War I reenactors, listen to live music from the era and watch an artist paint a giant WWI-themed mural. For an additional charge, they can attend presentations by local humorist Kevin Kling and historian Christopher Capozzola, author of the book "Uncle Sam Wants You."
The 5,000-square-foot exhibit moves chronologically through the war years, using dozens of artifacts, hundreds of photos and a handful of videos to immerse museum-goers in the turbulent era. Several interactive stations will give them a chance to flip through the draft registration cards of celebrities, play phonograph records and see the infamous Zimmerman Telegram being decoded.
"We have a lot of content," Horrigan said. "We have packed every possible inch of 5,000 square feet. We are at the limit under the Americans with Disabilities Act."
Although the exhibit is national in its scope, many of its artifacts have connections to Minnesotans and come from the Historical Society's collections. Others are on loan from the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., a handful of presidential libraries and several other institutions.
One of the last pieces installed - the glass bowl from which military draft numbers were drawn in 1917 - arrived Wednesday afternoon to great fanfare. On loan from the Philadelphia History Museum, the bowl's unveiling drew a visit from Adam J. Copp, interim director of the U.S. Selective Service System.
Horrigan, who led the team of a dozen people who developed "WW1 America," began work on the exhibit in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the war's beginning. Construction of the exhibit's dozens of displays began earlier this year.
The Historical Society has planned more than a dozen events to coincide with the exhibition's six-month run, beginning Friday evening with a revue of songs and stories from the period at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Titled "The War That Changed Us," it is a joint production of the Historical Society and Minnesota Public Radio.
After the exhibit wraps up its run at the History Center, it will travel to the Virginia Historical Society and four or five other museums around the country. The Historical Society's last traveling exhibit was "Toys of the '50s, '60s and '70s," which opened in St. Paul in May 2014.
WWI ON TV
Want to learn more about World War I? PBS and Twin Cities Public Television next week are airing "The Great War," a six-hour, three-night "American Experience" documentary about the war and its consequences. TPT will air the series at 8 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service