The Gunn Historical Museum commemorated the World War I centennial with the community curated exhibit Over There: Washington and the Great War and a series of eighteen diverse public programs. The museum had little readily available information on Washington and WWI, no research had been done before, and only a few artifacts in the collection related to this event. This presented a unique opportunity for public outreach and collaboration, bringing the community together to research, collect, and share Washington’s WWI stories in this project.
A team of over fifty volunteers and contributors joined one and a half staff members to make the exhibit and program series possible. They spent six months digitizing and transcribing hundreds of pages of local WWI letters & scrapbooks and conducting in-depth original historical research to discover the previously untold stories of Washington’s WWI-era residents. The result of this research was an immersive, community-curated, local history exhibit that spanned the entire first floor of the Gunn Museum. Not only did volunteers create the exhibit, but much of what was displayed was borrowed from the descendants of Washington’s WWI soldiers and other residents of the community.
The exhibit and program series, which included a musical performance, summer film series, pigeon program for kids, six-week poetry class, quilt presentation, artifact appraisal event, night-time WWI cemetery tour, and lectures about aviation, chemical warfare, and the legacy of the Great War, greatly enhanced the understanding of Connecticut history by sharing the story of our small town’s contribution to WWI. A Panotour virtual tour of the exhibit takes its impact beyond the walls of the museum to share Washington’s story with a wide audience even after it closes.
Extensive volunteer and community participation set this exhibit apart as a model of public engagement and cooperation in the service of telling important history. This project also received an Award of Merit from the Order of the First World War in 2014, the Association for the Study of Connecticut History’s 2015 Bruce Fraser Award, and a 2016 Award of Merit from the Connecticut League of History Organizations.