New Dunn Museum exhibit highlights women's roles in the military

New Dunn Museum exhibit highlights women's roles in the military

  • Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber, a Lake Forest High School graduate, is part of the Inspiration Wall in the "Breaking Barriers: Women in the Military" exhibit at the Dunn Museum in Libertyville.

    Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber, a Lake Forest High School graduate, is part of the Inspiration Wall in the "Breaking Barriers: Women in the Military" exhibit at the Dunn Museum in Libertyville. Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy

  • The Dunn Museum in Libertyville.

    The Dunn Museum in Libertyville. Courtesy John Weinstein

 
 
Updated 4/29/2021 12:08 PM

Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber, a graduate of Lake Forest High School, was named the first Black woman to serve as brigade commander at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. She stepped into the semesterlong role in January.

In the academy's 175-year history, Barber is only the 16th woman to take the position, equivalent of a student body president in civilian terms.

 

"Sydney holds the highest leadership position within the brigade. She is directly involved with the daily activities and training for the current brigade of more than 4,400 midshipmen," Dunn Museum Curator Diana Dretske said.

The "Breaking Barriers: Women in the Military" exhibit shows the evolution of women's roles over time, at first on the front lines alongside the military, then integrated into the military operations, and finally receiving equal military occupations, rank and pay, benefits, and recognition as veterans.
The "Breaking Barriers: Women in the Military" exhibit shows the evolution of women's roles over time, at first on the front lines alongside the military, then integrated into the military operations, and finally receiving equal military occupations, rank and pay, benefits, and recognition as veterans. - Courtesy of John Weinstein

When the mechanical engineering major graduates, she aspires to commission as a Marine Corps ground officer.

The story about Barber is part of the Inspiration Wall in the "Breaking Barriers: Women in the Military" exhibit at the Bess Bower Dunn Museum, 1899 W. Winchester Road in Libertyville. Running through June 13, the exhibit shares interesting stories and highlights women's roles as nurses, auxiliary personnel, enlistees, and officers in the U.S. military.

"Earning the title of brigade commander speaks volumes, but the title itself is not nearly as significant as the opportunity it brings to lead a team in doing something I believe will be truly special," Barber said in a story on the U.S. Naval Academy website.

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"I am humbled to play a small role in this momentous season of American history."

"For centuries, women have helped to defend the nation in times of war and conflict. In this tribute to those who served, the Dunn Museum exhibit shares unique Lake County stories. Sydney's inspiring story is one of many," Dretske said.

The exhibit shows the evolution of women's roles over time, at first on the front lines alongside the military, then integrated into the military operations, and finally receiving equal military occupations, rank and pay, benefits, and recognition as veterans.

Several branches of the U.S. Armed Forces are featured in the exhibition, including the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Army Air Force, which later became the U.S. Air Force.

It showcases the many aspects of women's service during times of war in the 20th century, including the Red Cross, Navy Yeomanettes, the Women's Army Corps, Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and others.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Not only is the role of women in the various branches of the military explored, there is also a specific focus on Lake County women and their stories.

"We invited Lake County women to submit their stories about their time in the military. We received some wonderful submissions from women and their families. Some are part of the exhibit," Director of Education Nan Buckardt said.

"The exhibit is structured to allow us to add more stories. We want to hear from women from all generations and learn about their experiences serving our country."

"Every uniform in the exhibit tells a story," Curator Heather Johnson said.

First Lieutenant Sarah (Pankonin) O'Brien (b. 1929), a native of Wauconda, enlisted as a dietitian in the U.S. Army Women's Medical Specialist Corps in 1953, after completing her studies at the University of Washington.
First Lieutenant Sarah (Pankonin) O'Brien (b. 1929), a native of Wauconda, enlisted as a dietitian in the U.S. Army Women's Medical Specialist Corps in 1953, after completing her studies at the University of Washington. - Courtesy of the Lake County Forest Preserves

One of the uniforms on display was worn by 1st Lieutenant Sarah Pankonin O'Brien when she served in the U.S. Army Women's Medical Specialist Corps. Born in 1929 in Wauconda, O'Brien is currently a Libertyville resident.

She interned as a dietitian at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, for a year. During her service at the hospital, she cared for many wounded servicemen returning from the Korean War. One of her patients was General George C. Marshall, the former U.S. Army Chief of Staff for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The uniform is also interesting in that it debuted in 1951 after the Army commissioned high-end fashion designer Hattie Carnegie to completely redesign the women's uniforms. Prior to this design, the uniforms for the Army's various women's corps were modeled as closely as possible after the men's uniforms.

"They were unflattering and didn't fit well," Johnson said.

The new uniforms were considered attractive, but ended up being uncomfortable. The collar was high and stiff and the uniform was made from fabric that proved difficult to care for and lost its shape easily.

A museum exhibit shows Janice Christiansen, who grew up in Waukegan and attended Waukegan High School, wearing her flight suit, standing in the cockpit with her comrades.
A museum exhibit shows Janice Christiansen, who grew up in Waukegan and attended Waukegan High School, wearing her flight suit, standing in the cockpit with her comrades. - Courtesy John Weinstein

Special exhibitions offered at the Dunn Museum are sometimes hosted national touring exhibitions and sometimes curated by Dunn Museum staff, which is the case with "Breaking Barriers: Women in the Military."

"This allowed us a chance to really delve into what makes Lake County and its residents so special," Buckardt said.

The Dunn Museum has a large collection of artifacts and archival materials that provide a rich resource for Lake County history. However, only a small percentage of the collection can be on display at one time.

"When Dunn Museum staff members curate an exhibition, it enables us to show more of the collection and connect visitors to our collective history," Buckardt said.

"Operated by the Lake County Forest Preserves, the Dunn Museum gives an incredibly thorough look into the history of our area," said Angelo Kyle, president of the Lake County Forest Preserves.

"The nationally accredited Dunn Museum -- a distinction held by only 3% of American museums -- cares for a treasure trove of history about our region. Other accredited museums in the Chicago area include the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry."

For admission, go online to LCFPD.org/MuseumTickets to purchase timed entry tickets in advance. Only a limited number of tickets will be available for purchase in person. Only credit card payments accepted.

• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.

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