Major changes coming to Cantigny's First Division Museum
When visitors step into the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton next summer, they'll be greeted by new, interactive exhibits celebrating all 100 years of the military unit's history.
On Thursday, museum officials announced the start of a $7 million redesign project that will update existing exhibits -- which span the period from the division's beginning in 1917 through the Vietnam War in 1970 -- and create new ones highlighting its more recent history.
The new exhibit will focus on deterrence, peace-keeping, military assistance, counterinsurgency and battle missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and other regions.
First Division Museum Executive Director Paul Herbert said talks about updating and expanding the exhibits have been ongoing for years. The museum, founded in 1960, hasn't undergone any major renovations since it was moved from its original location in what is now the Cantigny Park Visitors Center to its current building in 1992.
"The division is still on active duty, it's still serving us. It's got more story to tell," Herbert said. "As time marches on, more and more of our visitors have less personal identification with those more distant conflicts and more immediate identification with things that have happened within their lifetimes. So we have to meet the needs of our visitors."
The museum, which attracts about 170,000 visitors annually, will shut its doors on Veterans Day in November and stay closed until work is complete in summer 2017. The reopening will coincide with the centennial of the First Division and World War I.
While the building will be off limits to visitors, museum programming will continue in other facilities at Cantigny. The park is the former estate of Col. Robert R. McCormick, who fought with the First Division in France during World War I.
A.J. Goehle, director of strategy and design for Luci Creative, the company selected to design the exhibits, said the footprint of the museum is not changing, but visitors will see dramatic differences inside.
"We're using interactivity to involve visitors to go deeper into the content, while also allowing us to create more immersive experiences," she said. "It's an immersive experience, using projection and media and narration and all those kinds of great ways that we can layer in the voice of that time and some storytelling, not just through screens you can touch everywhere."
The work is divided into three areas: the existing 10,000-square-foot exhibit, which will be updated with revised text, updated panel displays and new digital components; the 2,700-square-foot temporary exhibit area, which will be converted into a permanent exhibit focused on the Big Red One's history after the Vietnam War; and the lobby.
Officials still are considering several concepts to introduce in the new exhibit, such as a convoy visitors could climb into and soldier story "pods" that would allow visitors to interface with dozens of soldiers through audio and visuals. Herbert said the popular theatrical sections of the existing exhibits will remain.
"You're still going to be able to walk through the World War I trench, you're still going to be able to go up on the beaches of Omaha, you're still going to be able to walk through the Vietnam jungle," he said. "Those are kind of our crown-jewel experiences, and visitors tell us over and over again, 'We love it.' We're not changing it."
But he hopes the updates and additions will help visitors gain a better understanding of what First Division soldiers have gone through, and why.
"You'll be able to listen to the soldiers explaining their service in their own words," he said. "We can't all be in the Army, but we can have empathy for our soldiers, we can be well-informed about who they are and what we ask them to do, because we ask them to do a lot."