Historical Society exhibit brings Word War I home to Montana

Getting ready for the Montana Historical Society Museum’s World War I exhibit, Roberta Jones-Wallace, exhibit designer, and Todd Saarinen, exhibit preparator, wrestled a custom-built trench into place. (Last Best News)

One of the most difficult things about assembling a World War I exhibit at the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena was deciding what to include and what to leave out.

The Great War, as it was also called, lasted four years and claimed the lives of 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians. It was fought, one way or or another, all over the globe. It destroyed empires and sparked revolutions, and its reverberations are still felt today.

Maggie Ordon, curator of the exhibit, “Times of Trouble, Times of Change: Montana and the Great War,” said the museum tackled the vast subject by concentrating on how everyday Montanans served the war effort overseas and on the home front. But it also shows how the war and accompanying patriotic fervor brought some communities together while tearing others apart.

“We really wanted to focus on things that spoke to — to refer to the title, ‘Times of Trouble, Times of Change’ — the drama and the struggle that was happening in Montana as well as overseas,” Ordon said.

She said the museum was also fortunate that the Montana Historical Society was already working on various aspects of Great War, and putting together other means of examining it.

That led to the creation of a “Montana and the Great War” website, which was geared toward use in schools and includes links to maps, books and articles, oral history clips, archived newspapers from the era, lesson plans and videos of related presentations.

Last year’s annual Montana conference focused on World War I, and a related exhibit — “Doing Our Bit: Montana’s Home Front during the Great War” — opened last April and will remain on display through the end of January in the Original Governor’s Mansion in Helena.

The special exhibit at the Historical Society Museum opened last month and will stay up through the summer of 2019.

“Times of Trouble, Times of Change” includes several interactive experiences, including a life-size replica of a Western Front trench and a “Follow a Montanan” character experience that allows visitors to choose a card featuring a real Montanan as they enter the exhibition, then learn more about their character’s story at the end of the tour.

Ordon said the exhibit features lots of materials from the museum’s permanent collections, including artifacts and photographs, materials from the historical society’s archives and a considerable number of World War I items, including medals and personal journals, loaned by Montana families.

Women in Lewistown, holding an American flag and banners, celebrated having raised funds for the war effort, ca. 1918. (Montana Historical Society)

Also, she said, the museum borrowed some artifacts from Hayes Otoupalik, a Missoula-area military collector and appraiser who was appointed special military historical adviser to the national World War I Centennial Commission. Among items loaned by Otoupalik was a German machine gun and fabric from a German aircraft rudder, medals awarded to Philip Prevost, of Geyser, and a variety of field gear and personal items a Montana soldier would have had in the trenches.

The exhibit also looks at events on the troubled home front, where labor unrest led to violent confrontations, and where a terrible disaster, the Speculator-Granite Mountain Mine fire on June 8, 1917, killed at least 168 miners in Butte.

The exhibit includes telegrams between families and the North Butte Mining Co., proprietor of the mine, and an interactive exhibit that looks at Montana’s Sedition Act, which was later used by the U.S. Congress in drafting its own federal Sedition Act.

That’s not all. As Ordon said in a press release before the opening of the exhibition: “Montanans, including non-citizen Native Americans, served in the military in record numbers — from the skies over Europe to the forests of France, from military hospitals to supply ships, and from the telephone exchanges to the trenches. Those who returned found their home communities struggling with influenza and drought.”

All that is explored in the exhibit. Parts of the exhibit that tell how patriotic Montanans responded to the war effort include a quilt that was raffled off as a fundraiser for the Cascade County Red Cross. People paid to have their names placed on the quilt, which ended up with nearly 1,300 names on the front and back. The effort generated $1,060 that was given to the Red Cross.

For more on how museum staff conceived and created the exhibit, you can read a couple of blog posts Ordon posted on the MHS website.