How Cantigny museum updates story of 'Big Red One'

Brenda McEwing looks directly into the camera and recalls what it was like to hear her platoon leaders describe her as "too weak."

A video of McEwing appears at eye level on one of the touch screens installed in the center of a new gallery at the First Division Museum on the grounds of Cantigny Park in Wheaton.

The museum's exhibits previously focused on the combat missions of the Army's 1st Infantry Division through the Vietnam War. But the contemporary gallery, called "Duty First," considerably updates the story of the "Big Red One," with McEwing and other veterans lending their voices as narrators.

McEwing's voice is self-assured as she reflects on those comments from her superiors.

"I told myself I was not going to let that get to me," said McEwing, who served in Operation Desert Storm.

In interviews filmed - and now playing for visitors - at the museum, the veterans give accounts of war and life at home. Their vignettes are funny, tragic, resilient.

"They're very human, and that's the point," Executive Director Paul Herbert said. "These are our soldiers."

It's a theme that Herbert consistently stressed during a preview tour ahead of the museum's reopening Saturday after a nearly yearlong, $8.5 million project.

Our soldiers. Our missions. Our division.

"And where they go, what they do, what they experience, why they're there is our responsibility as citizens," Herbert said.

  "We tell America's story for the last 100 years through the experiences of the 1st Infantry Division," says Paul Herbert, executive director of the newly renovated First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Bev Horne/

'First in War'

The original museum opened in 1960 in what is now the Visitor Center at Cantigny Park, the former estate of Col. Robert McCormick, the famed Chicago Tribune publisher.

He fought with the division in the Battle of Cantigny during World War I, returned home and renamed the estate after the French village.

The museum moved to its current site on the south side of the scenic Cantigny campus in 1992. The building closed last Veterans Day for its first major renovation.

Visitors will now see more media, graphics, artifact cases and personal stories "being brought to life," said AJ Goehle, a strategy and design director for Lincolnwood-based Luci Creative and one of the architects of the remodel.

The museum's main gallery, renamed "First in War," chronicles the first 50 years of the Army's oldest division, organized in 1917 during WWI.

At about 10,000 square feet, it's the largest and more theatrical of the museum's two galleries.

A new introductory video will play for an audience in a replica landing boat, setting the stage for D-Day and the incredible odds stacked against troops who would turn the tide of World War II. When the film ends, the screen lifts, opening up an entrance to a scene inspired by the terrain of Omaha Beach.

"Everybody knows that the guys who landed on D-Day were heroes," Herbert said. "But people don't understand why that invasion was necessary, why there was only one shot. If it failed, we were in deep, deep trouble, and it came within a hair's breath of failing, but those guys pulled it off."

Another new film for the museum shows rarely seen footage taken by Sam Fuller, an infantryman who would later became a Hollywood director.

The graphic, silent video lasts about 10 minutes and documents the burial of Holocaust victims found by the division's soldiers in Czechoslovakia.

Fuller's family gave the museum permission to publicly screen it in the gallery.

  The First Division Museum will reopen Saturday after a nearly yearlong redesign. A ceremony also will observe the centennial of the Army's oldest division. "Our fellow citizens, our family members serve it," Executive Director Paul Herbert said. "They're our soldiers." Bev Horne/

Five missions

The new gallery, by contrast, is not a chronological look at the modern era of the division based at Fort Riley, Kansas.

Projections onto the walls provide concise context and give museum curators the flexibility to continue updating the story of the division that's celebrating its centennial this year.

Inside the 2,500-square-foot space, visitors can explore five missions in the years after Vietnam: deterrence, peacekeeping, battle, counterinsurgency and military assistance for U.S. allies.

The gallery serves as a reminder that - "peace and war, headlines or no headlines" - the division's soldiers remain on active duty, said Herbert, a retired Army colonel.

"That's what your soldiers do," he said. "And we want you to meet them, and we want you to appreciate how much we ask of them."

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Museum’s new exhibit reflects ‘humanity of soldiers’

First Division Museum reopening celebration

When: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Cantigny Park, 1S151 Winfield Road, Wheaton

Details: 21-gun salute, photo booth, beer tent, food trucks, live music, inflatable obstacle course


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