New exhibit at Wheaton museum will tell 'our national story'
When a Wheaton museum reopens later this summer after a nearly yearlong renovation, a new gallery will tell the stories -- personal, human stories -- of the soldiers in the Army's 1st Infantry Division.
There's the story of Ross McGinnis, a private first class from Pennsylvania. McGinnis and four members of his crew were riding in a Humvee 10 years ago in Iraq when a grenade was thrown into the vehicle.
The 19-year-old sheltered the blast with his body, sparing the lives of his four comrades.
His parents kept his Medal of Honor, awarded after his death, above their mantelpiece in the family's modest home until they wanted their son's story told in the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park.
Paul Herbert, the museum's executive director, personally met with the family in the McGinnis home near Pittsburgh last summer and called their donation of the medal "powerful."
"We're at a point in our history now where not everybody knows a soldier," Herbert said. "But these kind of experiences are still part of our national story. They're still part of our social fabric. These soldiers do this for us, and people need to know that."
The museum will display the Medal of Honor in the new gallery called "Duty First." The $8 million redesign also is updating an exhibit -- renamed "First in War" -- that traces the division's roots in June 1917 through the Vietnam era.
A Lincolnwood firm, Luci Creative, is working with the museum to design both areas. Here's a look at what to see when the museum unveils the exhibits and celebrates the centennial of the Army's "Big Red One" on Aug. 26:
On the eastern side of the building, the museum will highlight the division's legacy in the 40 years after Vietnam. The space will be divided into zones that focus on five missions: deterrence, peacekeeping, battle, counterinsurgency and military assistance.
A mock Black Hawk helicopter will sit in the center of the exhibit. Seated inside, visitors can put on a virtual reality headset that shows the perspective of a soldier sweeping a home in Afghanistan for insurgents. It's an experience meant to build empathy for the soldier's split-second decision-making, Herbert said.
"This isn't cowboys and Indians," he said. "Their life is on the line."
Video screens that surround the helicopter at eye level play interviews with Army veterans. One mom talks about arranging for her children's long-term caregivers should she and her husband not return from their deployments.
"Those are the tiny unknown sacrifices of military service," Herbert said. "It's not all about ducking bullets on a battlefield. It's about a disciplined life of service to country no matter what."
Just before they leave the exhibit, visitors will see personal mementos or reminders of home that soldiers carried with them in war.
"They've all got a story. They've all got something that animates them," Herbert said. "They all have a life other than fighting our wars."
At the entrance to the "First in War" gallery on the west side of the building, the museum will display objects that soldiers in World War I through Vietnam carried in combat to tie both exhibits together and humanize those who serve.
"The themes that have inspired much of what we're doing is that idea," Herbert said. "These are our soldiers. This is our division. These are our missions. They are going in our name."
'Brave young American'
Even before the museum broke ground on the project last Veterans Day, officials were collecting artifacts and researching stories through relationships Herbert, a retired Army colonel, has tactfully cultivated for years.
In one letter to the McGinnis family, Herbert expressed his condolences and told them about the museum. But he didn't ask if they would consider donating the Medal of Honor until plans for the project were moving ahead.
"It was a very moving experience," an emotional Herbert said of meeting the family.
He also has built ties with those on active duty. The Big Red One observes its 100 years of service in June, but museum officials agreed to mark the anniversary and the reopening in August so troops currently deployed with the division's headquarters in Baghdad could attend.
Those forces are supporting Iraqi operations against the Islamic State and should return to the U.S. in July.
Their division now has an "unprecedented" presence around the world, Herbert said. The museum renovations will give curators more flexibility to change out artifacts and update visitors on that global reach.
"Those missions are carried out every day, and some brave young American goes and does that," he said.