A tale of two public history exhibits

“Minnesota’s Greatest Generation.” Minnesota Historical Society. 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55102. 4 February 2017.

Minnesota’s Greatest Generation. http://www.mnhs.org/people/mngg/. Created and maintained by the Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. Reviewed Feb. 4-9, 2017.

A visit to the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) in St. Paul to view its “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” exhibit, plus an examination of the companion website, offers an instructive exercise in how history might engage the public in both physical and digital forms.

Entrance to Minnesota's Greatest Generation.
The entrance to “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation,” a permanent exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society, takes visitors back to the 1910s and 1920s, when members of the generation were still children. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)

“Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” is among the society’s permanent exhibits and was unveiled in 2005. Its premise is simple: To tell the story of those Minnesotans who lived through two world wars and the decades that followed. Although war, and especially the Second World War, figures large in the exhibit — including a real M8 armored vehicle and a C-47 transport airplane — the story of combat is not the crux of the presentation. Rather, the exhibit focuses on what Minnesotans did during these decades, whether it was to pick up arms or make sacrifices at home, and how those experiences informed their activities later on.

Both the physical exhibit and the digital version argue for “the enduring legacy” of this generation, that these persons’ experiences shaped not only themselves but also Minnesota’s prosperity and engagement with the world.

The physical exhibit, billed as covering more than 6,000 square feet, begins by taking the visitor back to the early 20th century, when those who would become the “Greatest Generation” were still children. Collections of children’s toys, a miniature movie theater, and a drug store with a soda fountain set the mood for the period after the First World War. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that the exhibit is aimed at families. Interactive components, such as the soda fountain and an artillery shell assembly line, allow parents and children to engage with aspects of Minnesota history. Meanwhile, the ravages of war are downplayed, although not completely ignored.

Walking through the exhibit is like navigating a timeline. From the 1910s and 1920s, one quickly comes upon the 1940s and the Second World War. The armored vehicle, a large factory display, and a vitrine full of “souvenirs” gathered by Minnesotans who fought in the European and Pacific theaters are among elements that tell the story of the conflict and what people did on the home front. Audio-visual displays provide anecdotes from those who lived through the era, such as one from a man who was sent home by the draft board because he was needed more on the family farm than on the front lines.

Around a corner, visitors leave the conflict and enter the post-war boom years. A blue 1955 Ford automobile, made in St. Paul, sits under a neon sign advertising vacation cabins. Television sets showcase local news stories and entertainment from the 1950s and 1960s.

Visiting on a Saturday afternoon, I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of young families spending time in the exhibit. The exhibit is self-directed. Only one docent was spotted, but disappeared while I was in the exhibit.

The “enduring legacy” becomes clear as the exhibit enters the 1960s. While some Minnesotans became involved in global politics or protested U.S. involvement in conflicts abroad, others — like Minneapolis-born Gen. John William Vessey Jr. (1922-2016) — went to Vietnam to fight. The message of the exhibit is that their actions and engagement with the world were informed by their earlier experiences.

Minnesota's Greatest Generation website
The digital version of “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” is part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s website.

After viewing the physical exhibit, the digital presence is disappointing. It is outdated and the intended audience is undefined. Multiple links fail or turn back to the site’s homepage. For example, in the site’s “About the Project” narrative two links to promotional videos open new browser windows that contain just the header and footer of a page, but no multimedia elements or explanation of what has gone wrong.

The website is divided into four major categories: Exhibit, About, Preserve Your Treasures, and V-E Day.

The “Exhibit” section provides an overview of what is on display at MHS, but nothing more. In fact, the section misses an opportunity to provide online visitors with more information, or to allow those who have been to St. Paul to recall or learn more about objects. All that is provided are bulleted lists of major elements of the exhibit.

The “About” section gives background on the public history project. However, even this section falls short. Every single hyperlink in the narrative leads to a page that declares, “We are working to bring this Minnesota’s Greatest Generation resource back online,” or throws a 404 error.

“Preserve Your Treasures” is the most useful section, providing users with information on how to gather and protect documents and other artifacts. This is an excellent resource for those who either come to the website directly, or who are inspired to do so after viewing the physical exhibit in St. Paul.

The “V-E Day” section, as the title suggests, should lead the user to material focused on May 8, 1945, when Germany surrendered to the Allies. Within the section, the visitor finds links to four front pages from Minnesota newspapers. However — once again — links that apparently would send the user to oral histories from the period do not work. Given that the exhibit in St. Paul addressed fighting in the Pacific, one wonders why V-J Day is not given more prominence on the website, even though it is covered.

At least a couple of sub-sections do function. “Moving Pictures,” a short film competition from 2006-2008, leads to YouTube videos. And “Investigate Further” provides a rather rich selection of links to additional material within the MHS site. Those who maintain “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” should consider highlighting these links, rather than burying them, because they may well provide visitors with the reason why they came to the website.

Unfortunately, one of the most promising sub-sections, “Share Your Story,” also does not function at present. The ability to capture stories of “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” should be a critical component of the website.

To confuse matters, another part of the MHS website does exactly what the exhibit website should. Stories of Minnesota’s Greatest Generation, also labeled simply as “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” (hence the confusion) offers biographies of a number of individuals and families. For example, one story tells of a woman who worked in a glider factory in Minneapolis. Another story looks at the life an African American entrepreneur who was born in Mississippi and moved to Minnesota after serving in Europe during the war. Curiously, this site makes no mention of the physical exhibit in the history center in St. Paul.

“Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” was initially supported by a $360,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and also has received corporate and individual donations. Visitors to St. Paul are invited to continue supporting maintenance and development of the exhibit. One can hope that some of those funds will be used to update the digital product.