TOPEKA, Kan. — A new World War II exhibit starting this summer at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum will pay tribute to the millions who fought, but organizers also have another purpose for the ambitious three-year project: getting young people engaged in the war's relevance.
Karl Weissenbach, executive director of the library and museum in Abilene, said the "Leaders, Battles and Heroes" exhibit will be directed at younger generations that often know little about the war, its significance in world history or the impact of its outcome.
"It's amazing how little information and understanding they have about World War II," Weissenbach said. "You ask them questions, and often you get a blank stare. That's really unsettling."
Eisenhower museum curator William Snyder said not every battle will be depicted, but the hope is for people to see the war through the eyes of those who were there, using first-person accounts of what happened from the late 1930s through the war's end.
"It continues to impact our lives on a daily basis. I hope people will realize this didn't happen in the far-off history books," Snyder said.
The 10,000-square-foot exhibit opens in June and runs through the end of 2016. It will rotate artifacts periodically from a collection of 78,000 items to reflect the advancement of U.S. forces during the war, leading to the surrender of Japan and Germany in 1945. Among the items to be displayed will be a newly acquired Soviet uniform and diary that were obtained with the help of the State Department.
Beyond artifacts and photographs, Snyder said the plan is to use new technology to deliver the story of the war in a way that's compelling and relevant to young people. Visitors will be able to scan quick response, or QR, codes with a mobile device to link to more detailed content about specific events or items — a far cry from the telegraphs, shortwave radios and landline telephones used during the war.
"It's hammering home how different things were, just getting people to realize how much slower things were," Snyder said.
Younger generations are not getting a full enough picture of World War II because of the way history is taught today, with major events often lumped together with other social sciences, said Anita Specht, history professor at Kansas Wesleyan University.
"When I survey my students what their favorite topic is, the majority will say World War II," Specht said. "I think maybe our young people are frustrated with their understanding."
She said history teachers may need to be more creative in the future about how they cover the war in their classrooms.Comment on this story
Weissenbach said the exhibit will be the largest the Eisenhower staff has presented. It will involve both the library and museum and include educational programs and symposiums.
Staff will be collaborating with officials in Europe, Japan and South America to bring their artifacts and perspectives to the U.S. for the exhibit.
"World War II is still so relevant. I believe it's our responsibility being the Eisenhower library and with his legacy that we thank our veterans and our allies," Weissenbach said. "Hopefully, our goal is to make sure that kids have an appreciation of what their grandparents or great-grandparents sacrificed.
"We're putting all of our resources into this program. We are obligated to do this. This is Gen. Eisenhower's hometown and what the public rightfully expects."