December 7, 2017

Montana’s Museum and the Great War: A Story of an Exhibition, Part One of Two

by Maggie Ordon, Curator of History

This post is the first part of two going behind-the-scenes of the Museum’s newest exhibition. Times of Trouble, Times of Change: Montana and the Great War will open with a free reception on Thursday, December 14, from 5 to 7 p.m. The reception will have refreshments inspired by historic recipes, hands-on activities for all ages, and WWI-era music from the Continental Divide Tuba Society.

For the past couple years at the Montana Historical Society, we have been wrestling with how to tell Montana’s stories of the Great War. Because the topic was so big, we came up with four projects. Martha Kohl in the Outreach & Interpretation department led a project to tell place-based stories via a website (http://mhs.mt.gov/education/WWI). Bobi Harris, interpretive tour guide, co-curated an immersive experience, Doing Our Bit, at the Original Governor’s Mansion. Our annual history conference this year focused on Montana, ca. 1917, and we had more proposals than we could accept. And for the past year, folks across the society have come together to tell Montana’s stories in a special exhibition at the museum: Times of Trouble, Times of Change: Montana and the Great War.

Winnowing this tumultuous time period into a single gallery has been a collaborative effort that included brainstorming topics, reading books and articles, discussing topics with colleagues, pulling and reviewing artifacts, searching through databases for photographs and posters, scanning newspapers on microfilm, flipping through old magazines, poring over letters and diaries, writing and revising pages of interpretive text, making models of exhibit components, designing interactive experiences, and consulting with Montana families of Great War veterans.

Notes from a team brainstorming session. Photo by author.
In the beginning of the planning process, the exhibit team met to brainstorm topics. Although this exhibit commemorates the First World War, we found that there were many issues at stake that went beyond the battlefields of France. We came up with ideas that we thought were important to include, but we also had to make difficult decisions of what not to include in the exhibit. For example, sometimes we selected topics to show the changes and troubles Montana was facing during the Great War, such as the labor unrest in Butte and influenza pandemic across the state. Other times, we knew we didn’t have the room to include everything, and had to cut topics out we otherwise would have liked to include, including the role of technology in the war. While making these decisions we thought about the physical space; the artifacts, photographs, and stories available; and the emotional sides of the stories.

Some of the museum objects being considered for inclusion in the exhibit. Photo by author.

Museum artifacts staged for planning exhibit cases. Photo by author.

One of the first things we did in planning this exhibition was to take stock of the artifacts, photographs, and archival materials we had or might borrow. As we figured out what we had space for and what told Montana’s stories best, we put some items away and sorted others into cases (the blue tape lines on the table are the rough outlines of a case). Museum registrars diligently cataloged and described the condition of Museum and loaned objects to make sure they were safe and ready to be on display.

Throughout the exhibition process we also had the pleasure of working with Hayes Otoupalik, an expert on U.S. militaria who was appointed Special Military Historical Advisor to the WW1 Centennial Commission. He generously loaned many artifacts, including a German machine gun and fabric from a German aircraft rudder, Distinguished Service Cross and medal group for Philip Prevost of Geyser, and a variety of field gear and personal items a Montana soldier would have had in the trenches.

Model of gallery space, built by R. Jones-Wallace. Photo by author.

The exhibit’s team—designer, prepator, curator, education specialist, and various advisors—planned what the main content areas would be, how topics would be organized (e.g. Montana before the war, home front, overseas service, and Montana after the war), what artifacts and photographs would be used, and what interactive experiences to develop. As curator, I wrote text for each of these sections and the individual objects. The exhibit designer mapped out new walls, figured out what would fit where (or wouldn’t fit!), and selected colors that captured the mood of the exhibit. One of the planning strategies the museum team used is building models of the gallery and exhibit components. The team was always moving between the model, the artifacts, and text—reworking each as needed to reach a final version. The model helped the team move from a blank slate to a fully-realized, unique space. Transforming that vision into a 3-dimensional reality will be the topic of part two.

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