On May 27 at 4 p.m., the Museums, Monuments and Memory class at Knox College will be holding a grand opening to showcase the World War II exhibit that students have been preparing throughout the entirety of spring term. A compilation of artifacts and stories will communicate the words of a generation that experienced the “most transformative event of the 20th century,” said students in the class.
The World War II exhibit created by this class serves as a collective project rather than a series of individual posters of information.
According to professor of history Catherine Denial, “Museums, Monuments and Memory is the only 300 level history class at Knox College that does not require students to produce a paper. Instead of writing a 15-20 page paper, students are asked to explain what they learned to an average person walking down the street.”
While it is easy for history classes to preoccupy students with intense fact memorization and extensive research papers, the ultimate goal of this class is to expose students to a new way of looking at World War II.
Sophomore Jordan Reifsteck described the exhibit as a project in which students “were trying to look at World War II from a global perspective.” According to Reifsteck, “The exhibit contains maps of the world because we’re trying to establish a worldwide perspective. There is inherent bias, but we would like to eliminate it as much as possible.”
In order to structure the project, the class divided work among students based on communication skills that do not always illuminate themselves in the setting of a history class. “Visual communication and collective enterprise” were some of these skills, Denial said.
Student commitment to this project surpassed the expectations of many involved. According to senior Erin Souza, “We’ve done so much work. We broke up into three committees: logistics, public relations and exhibit design. Everybody has been hard at work outside of class.”
Aside from examining a series of archives from the Galesburg Historical Society and seeking out sources from the Mayo Clinic for artifacts and stories, students reached out directly to the Galesburg community.
“We went to Uncle Billy’s, Q’s Cafe, Lowes and Dick Blick to request any donations they would be willing to give to assist us with the building and displaying,” said junior Ryan Larson. “All of these places helped us out a lot.”
Students applied a great deal of thought to exhibit design. Post-bach Grant Forssberg said, “The exhibit is divided into three thematic areas: overseas, the home front and the aftermath of World War II.”
“The center of the exhibit is where people will leave their own memories,” said Larson. The central location of those memories, effectively serving as the heart of the exhibit, brings a vital sort of credibility to the class’s perspective on World War II as a transformative event in history that would be incomprehensible without the stories of individuals.
According to Denial, “History is a human-created story that we put together based on what fragments have been left to us. It’s like detective work. There are different ways of putting the pieces of information together in order to make sense of the past.”
In order to gather the stories of individuals for the exhibit, Forssberg said, “There were eight correspondents that we followed over the course of the project. We took their memories and looked at the people, places and things that they talked about.”
To better understand the variation on personal war involvement, the class contacted members of the Knox College Fifty Year Club, a campus-wide organization composed of alumni who graduated from Knox College at least 50 years ago.
“We asked for volunteers to recollect their memories of their wartime experiences,” said Forssberg.
Forssberg emphasized the need to obtain a diversity of wartime experiences to arrive at a global perspective on World War II.
“We found one person who was an aviation cadet and another who was a service member in Europe. We had an alumnus who served in the Pacific and took classes at the University of Hokkaido,” he said.
Although the exhibit will open on May 27 in the Ford Center for Fine Arts, the museum will touch the lives of spectators in other locations, facilitated by its mobility as a lightweight structure. While the museum is made to look “deceptively stable and concrete,” according to Forssberg, its Styrofoam composition makes it easy to transport.
As the process of putting together the World War II exhibit has come to a close, Denial said, “Students in this class have learned how…to make arguments about the past.”
The exhibit seeks to unite the past and present through a different kind of interpretation of a war that shook the world 65 years ago.