Jackson Marshall wanted to give visitors to the N.C. Museum of History a unique experience to mark the centennial of the United States’ involvement in World War I. The result is a popular exhibit that features shellfire, actors and sandbag trenches. More than 180,000 people have visited the exhibit since it opened six months ago in the downtown Raleigh museum. Marshall, 60, talks about how – and why – this project came together.
Q: Your grandfather was one of more than 86,000 North Carolinians to fight in the war. How did that connection influence the exhibit?
A: I spent the summers with my grandfather on a farm in Forsyth County. I had discovered a uniform and gas mask in a closet. I was very young and curious, but he would never talk about the war. When I got older and pressed him for more, I found it had been a terrible experience for him; he’d been wounded by shellfire. I didn’t know until after he passed away that he’d suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the war.
Q: As the lead curator for the exhibit, what was your mission?
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A: Simply to honor the men and women who sacrificed during the war.
I knew these veterans, and they were very important to me growing up. Our farm boys and people from the fields and factories of North Carolina were thrown into something they barely understood. And yet they had to endure it and try to get through it.
Q: How is this exhibit different from others that focus on World War I?
A: We have sound effects, shellfire and machine gun sounds as you enter into the trench system. You pass by a field hospital, a poison gas area and then you have to go through a no-man’s land, walking directly at a German with a machine gun shooting at you. At the end, we do a postscript with video characters talking about how the war impacted their countries.
We tried to put the humanity back into the topic. The videos the staff produced are very effective. When you first walk in, you see children talking about why their countries are going to war. People don’t expect that—to see children talking about warfare, but they introduced the war to people on a child’s perspective. We used a lot of video or film footage and photography, and we also re-created a lot of historical characters with our own actors in costumes.
Q: There’s a battlefield diorama that you and your sons built years ago. Has World War I been a lifelong interest for you?
A: I’ve been to France a number of times and walked the battlefields, and twice I took my sons with me. They walked the ground where their great-grandfather was wounded.
We built the diorama together as a father-son project 10 or 12 years ago. It took months to do it. None of us ever thought it would be on exhibition. When they went off to college it was all put away, and I thought, “That’s the end of that.”
Q: The exhibit will be on display until Jan. 6, 2019. What feedback have you gotten so far?
A: This is the largest World War I centennial exhibit in any state history museum in the United States. The Smithsonian didn’t really do a centennial exhibition, so this is where people are coming. We’ve gotten support from our congressmen who are excited about it. We had the Belgium embassy staff here for the opening, and we have families coming from other states to see it.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you and your staff?
A: Most people don’t know anything about World War I. World War II overshadowed that time period in American history. So that was the first challenge: How do we introduce it to people who don’t know much about it? The other is that it was a complicated war with complicated consequences. You have to make it relevant to people today and make it interesting. The museum staff here was very creative. I would tell them what my vision was, and honestly what I think we came up with was far better.
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Jackson Marshall – Tar Heel of the Week
Born: April 4, 1957, in Winston-Salem
Career: Thirty years at the N.C. Museum of History; currently deputy director
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Wake Forest University
Family: Married with two sons, three stepdaughters and a stepson
Fun facts: Marshall says he is related to Daniel Boone, Gov. Zebulon Vance and President Andrew Johnson.