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Local News

Cantigny's First Division Museum to close for November construction, promises soldier-first exhibits

WHEATON – The political reasons soldiers are sent to war are often complicated to discuss and explore, particularly in recent conflicts.

But for many, the stories of the soldiers who actually fight those fights are always worth telling, and the historic 1st Infantry Division, known as the "Big Red One," has seen a fair number over its near-century of history.

In November, the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park will temporarily close to begin what museum officials are calling a "transformational" $7 million redesign project to help bring the stories of the soldiers of the historic division to light.

Paul Herbert, executive director of the museum, said the project will improve the overall experience of those going through the museum.

"I think people will walk out saying, 'I had no idea,'" he said.

The museum plans to completely revamp its current building, originally constructed in 1992, to create a more flexible and updated space. It will reopen in summer 2017, just in time to celebrate the centennial of the historic division with a grand reopening party.

Herbert said a big construction project had been pondered for years after the museum recognized its history of the storied and historic division only extended through the Vietnam War.

Though the rest of the museum also will receive a facelift while remaining in its existing space, the museum will place a large portion of its efforts toward closing that historical gap.

Instead of a simple linear examination of the division's history, the new exhibits will be told thematically, tracing its influence in deterrence, peacekeeping, military assistance, counter insurgency and battle missions over the last 50 years of service. Each area will feature stories from servicemen and women, talking about their experience as soldiers and giving an immersive look at what their lives are like.

AJ Goehle, director of strategy and design with design partner Luci Creative, said her firm started the redesign of the space focusing on the important stories of the division to create a more intimate connection with the history.

"What is important to the story and what's compelling to our visitors, and how do we connect that story with our visitors?" she said. "Then we built on that story...we all felt that the way we were going to gain visitors today with the content was through the soldiers."

All would be tied into a larger look at the decisions and histories that led to soldiers being sent abroad and perspectives of those who agreed or disagreed with that. Then, visitors will be asked what they think about it all, Goehle said.

"It allows us to bridge that citizen and soldier piece to say, 'It's my job as a citizen of this country to understand and be informed and make my own opinion about it, whether I agree or disagree, because it affects me,'" she said.

Herbert, himself a veteran, said he had often run into a bit of cynicism about the motivations behind war efforts in recent years, but he said all was legitimate and only asked that people be informed.

"We will not deny any of the negative aspects of the story that we present," Herbert said. "But put them all on the scales and it's a net positive story – it's a story about service to country, personal sacrifice and defending the ideals that the United States tries to promote around the world."

Herbert said the museum will continue its normal operations through at least Veteran's Day 2016, then close its doors for construction. He promised all planned programs would be carried out at other locations.

For more information on the closure, visit firstdivisionmuseum.org.

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