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Lessons from the Homefront Interpreting World War II

Between 1989 and 1995, museum educators throughout the United States created interpretive programs for exhibits marking the fiftieth anniversary of World War II. Lessons learned from these educational initiatives can be applied as new programs and exhibits are developed on this important part of history.

There is public support for Interpretive programs that examine all aspects of WWII-related history. Museum educators should develop programs that focus not only on the military and diplomatic implications of the war, but the political, economic, social, and cultural aspects as well. Interpretive programs on aspects of popular culture such as movies and music, can be used to initiate public discussion of a wide variety of issues. A lecture on the wartime housing shortage, for example, was used to launch audience discussion of racial segregation and other complex economic and social issues at the Museum of the Cape Fear in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Interest in WWII-related history is not confined to the generation of men and women who served in the armed forces or lived on the homefront. Support for interpretive programs related to WWII cuts across generational, social class, racial, gender, and ethnic lines or distinctions. There is a demand for interpretive programs and exhibits that consider the war’s impact on families and communities — the average Americans, including enlisted men and women, industrial and agricultural workers, African- Americans, American Indians, immigrants, adolescents, and children. A symposium co-sponsored by the North Carolina Division of Archives and History and the North Carolina Literary Society laid to rest the myth that the only people interested in the experiences of minority groups are other members of those groups. The entire audience listened with great interest as African-American veterans described their desire to be treated without regard for color, and how they responded to racism.

Museum educators must avoid over-simplification in interpretive programs on WWII. Three North Carolina institutions, the Onslow County Museum, the Museum of the Cape Fear, and the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Design Arts, developed exhibits that were valuable educational tools because they weighed both the positive and negative aspects of life on the homefront. Each exhibit showed how, although the war brought unprecedented economic growth and political influence to North Carolina’s cities and towns, the war boom resulted in complicated economic and social problems that defied quick or easy solutions.

Interpretive programs should help visitors relate the war to their every day lives. The Bellamy Mansion Museum’s exhibit, “A Journey Through Chaos: World War II Invades Wilmington,” showed how the federal government responded to local wartime needs by financing the construction of housing, schools, medical facilities, shopping centers, and recreation centers. Wartime infrastructure improvements helped create the economic foundation for the dramatic postwar growth of North Carolina. Interpretive programs on WWII should involve persons who served in the armed forces or lived on the homefront. Veterans of the WWII battlefront and homefront should be consulted in the early stages of program or exhibit planning. They can offer suggestions on program topics, approach or method, and the location of documentary and photographic sources of historical evidence. “World War II in Beaumont: Remembering the Homefront,” a panel discussion co-sponsored by the McFaddin-Ward House and the Tyrrell Historical Library in Beaumont, Texas, involved fourteen persons who lived on the WWII homefront. Dozens of other people were, however, consulted in the process of conceptualizing the program, identifying and tracking down panelists, and publicizing the program.

Veterans organizations, religious groups, senior citizen and retiree organizations, and nursing homes can offer museum educators assistance in locating persons who served in the armed forces during the war or worked in defense industry. AH WWII veterans and workers are not, however, suitable candidates for participation in interpretive museum programs. Museum educators must discreetly screen potential program participants in order to identify those most likely to effectively communicate with the public. They should meet with each participant before the program to explain its format and educational objectives. Educators should provide examples of the kinds of insights and experiences the public is likely to derive the greatest benefit from while at the same time being careful not to color or influence the participant’s perceptions or interpretations. Beaumont panelists who worked in war industries such as shipbuilding, were, for example, encouraged to go beyond a simple description of their job responsibilities and discuss the physical and mental demands of their work, working conditions, and the nature of their relationship with their coworkers and employer.

Museum educators should conclude Interpretive programs on WWII by commenting on the extent to which the learning goals identified at the outset of the program were realized. They should summarize the questions or issues that were raised, and the range of opinions expressed. Museum educators may wish to discuss how the program suggested directions for future educational initiatives.

Interpretive programs should also conclude with suggestions for further study of WWII history. A traditional bibliography should be supplemented with a listing of museums and historic sites, films and videos, addresses of sites on the World Wide Web, and other upcoming events and programs pertaining to World War II.

Programs can be concluded with a set of specific suggestions as to how audience members can further the documentation and interpretation of WWII history. For instance, a WWII coastal artillery re-enactment program held at Fort Fisher [North Carolina] State Historic Site closed with a brief discussion of how the museum planned to give increased attention to the collection, conservation, and interpretation of artifacts and archival material pertaining not only to WWII, but the entire twentieth century. This appeal was made after research brought to light the fact that while many museums visitors recognize the nostalgic value of a shipyard employee’s identification badge, or a USO dance program, or a letter written from “somewhere in the South Pacific,” they often overlook their historical value.

Museum educators should evaluate the effectiveness of WWII interpretive programs. Written surveys and exit interviews are among the means that can be used to determine whether a program or exhibit successfully conveyed its message or messages. It should, however, be noted that interpretive programs encourage visitation, donation, volunteerism, and institutional loyalty and support long after they are over. As a result, museum educators and administrators need to utilize many different measures or yardsticks for assessing a program’s success.

In summary, even through the fiftieth anniversary of WWII has passed, museums will continue to offer interpretive programs on this subject. There is an on-going need for public education about America’s last total war and its impact on the nation as a whole, as well as its regions, states and territories, and local communities.

Planning and implementation of interpretive programs on WWII should be geared for audiences who have little or no knowledge of the causes of the war, the major military engagements, the economic, political, and social implications at home and abroad, the personalities involved, and — if the current generation of university students are any guide — even the outcome of the war. As the generation of men and women who lived through WWII passes away, the need for “front-end” research that identifies exactly what visitors know and do not know about WWII, can no longer be ignored.

Kristin M. Szyhian joined the faculty of Western Michigan University in 1996. She served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Public History Program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington from 1989 to 1996, and as Associate Historian for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission from 1987 to 1989. Szylvian received a Ph.D. in History from Carnegie Mellon University. She has served as consultant and board member at numerous museums and historic sites.

Szylvian, Kristin M. “Lessons from the Homefront: Interpreting World War II,” The Docent Educator 7.3 (Spring 1998): 16-17.


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