Stumbling through the Trenches in Raleigh

The United States entered World War I one hundred years ago. There are new documentaries, lectures, and museum displays happening all across this fair nation. This past weekend, we happened to be in Raleigh, North Carolina,  for the state level of National History Day competition, and we had a chance to visit one of those new displays. The North Carolina Museum of History recently opened its new North Carolina and World War I exhibit. The Hardy family took the opportunity to visit this special experience.StumblingWWI1

Though the new exhibit includes a few of the artifacts from the WWI section in the permanent North Carolina Goes to War Hall, it also includes a vast array of artifacts, features excellent displays and interpretive models, and literally takes the visitor into the trenches. Starting with
projected images of children from a variety of countries expressing their outlook on the situation at the beginning of the war, the exhibit takes the visitor through the experiences a North Carolina soldier would have had in training (complete with a yelling drill sergeant), all the way to the front lines in Europe. As visitors wend their way through the massive, barbed-wire-topped entrenchments, they can take part in interactive experiences and view a variety of artifacts and replicas that lend a greater understanding of this terrible war and those who fought it. At the end of the twisting path, adults from many lands share their feelings about the end of the war, particularly their anxiety over the German response to the war’s outcome.

It is a wonderful exhibit, and each of the Hardys had favorites among its features. Michael was particularly taken with a battle-damaged German officer’s pistol, as it shows actual combat experience. Elizabeth liked the cases that were positioned in the “earth works” and filled with actual dug artifacts from the fields of Europe, un-restored and still looking much as they do when they are pulled out of the ground, something that still happens today. Nate liked the German and French original machine guns (replicas fire over visitors’ heads from time to time). Isabella’s favorite part was the beginning and end, with the very realistic people speaking in their own languages, and telling about their very real concerns before and after the war. Everyone was very impressed with the exhibit’s “hidden Mickey”: a lifelike rat that burrows under the wall of one of the trenches.StumblingWWI2

Michael does wish that there had been a map of North Carolina’s military bases as part of the exhibit. Places like Camp Greene in Charlotte and Camp Bragg (now Fort Bragg). Also, at the end of the exhibit, there was talk of commemorating World War I. How about something more on the monuments to World War I scattered throughout North Carolina? There are dedicated World War I monuments in High Point, Wilmington, Charlotte, Salisbury, Winton, and many others. Though the powerful display with “Flanders Field” at the end reminds us of the sacrifices of all soldiers, it would be nice to have more on the way North Carolina in particular remembered her lost doughboys.

Visitors can commemorate their experience with books, magnets, and other items in the gift shop, and they can also donate to the VFW and take a poppy for their own remembrance.

This amazing exhibit, like the rest of the museum, is free to the public. It is best to come early in morning, especially on Saturday, when school groups are not rampaging through with energy levels that might take them straight through no-man’s land.  Though some of the effects may be startling or even scary for younger children, it is a great opportunity for everyone to learn more about this important chapter in the life of our state, nation, and world. North Carolina and World War I will be in the museum until January 2019.

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