The most remarkable thing about the 36-square-foot World War I battlefield diorama isn't the detail, down to the barbed wire and burlap on the trenches or, even, that a father and his two sons built it a decade ago in their garage.
It is that the father, Jackson Marshall, and his now adult sons, Stuart and Dalton, played out elaborate battlefield games on the massive spread, following Jackson Marshall's meticulous rules that included everything from the way the wind might be blowing the German's poison gas to the sight lines from within the trenches.
Today, the Marshall family's expansive diorama sits in a new exhibit called North Carolina and World War I at the N.C. Museum of History in downtown Raleigh. Visitors won't be able to play the game. But they will be able to marvel at the detail and storyline, along with the other more than 500 artifacts, videos and displays in the 6,500-square-foot exhibit.
"We're both pretty thrilled to have it on display," Stuart Marshall said.
Jackson Marshall is the museum's deputy director and project manager and curator of the new exhibit. Marshall's interest in World War I was kindled as a child, who wanted to know more about his own grandfather's WWI service. Marshall would eventually interview other World War I veterans and take his family to France to explore World War I battlefields.
The new exhibit is, in many ways, a labor of love for Marshall, whose grandfather's own World War I jacket and gas mask are on display in a rotating family heirloom case. And Marshall said the goal has been to make the exhibit accessible to all, including children, who might visit the exhibit and have their own questions.
"We want this to be an exhibit where you don't have to read everything," Marshall said.
To that end, the exhibit tells the story of North Carolina's contribution to World War I through a variety of videos, actor reenactments and special effects. It opens Saturday with a free, family-friendly event.
It starts at the beginning - with a series of videos featuring actors, mostly local kids, playing children from different countries speaking, in their own language, about their country's feelings about the war.
Then, it follows a soldier's path from the recruitment office to basic training to the stomach churning sea voyage to France. From there, with the help of a life-size, immersive trench, visitors can explore other aspects of the war, including the weapons, relics, a field hospital, the stories of North Carolina veterans and that large battlefield diorama.
Throughout the exhibit, there are plenty of videos and interactive pieces that will keep a child's attention. It's probably best for fourth graders and up.
If you go with children, here are some things that might pique their interest:
- The videos at the exhibit's entrance featuring actors who are portraying kids at the start of the war and their country's feelings about the war.
- The video in the basic training area where an actor, playing a drill sergeant, barks orders. Kids might enjoy playing along.
- The green boxes marked, "lift lid to view video." The videos feature the words of actual WWI veterans found in interviews, letters and diaries.
- That battlefield diorama, which comes complete with box viewers so visitors can get a ground-level view of the action. Kids might enjoy bopping back and forth between the diorama and the exhibit, looking for the soldiers or weapons found both in the diorama and in exhibit displays.
- Periscopes spread around the trenches, which feature videos of what might have been happening above.
- Several "funk holes" within the trenches, which would have been used for soldiers to take a break from the action or get out of the rain. Visitors are welcome to explore the small spaces.
- The lights and sounds of the shellfire and no man's land exhibits.
A word of warning: In parts, the exhibit relies on bright lights, flashing lights and loud noises, which might disturb some young children or those with sensory issues. The video in the poison gas gallery and the brief footage from the original, 1930 version of "All Quiet on the Western Front" in the no man's land gallery also may be frightening for very young children. But it's easy to bypass the poison gas gallery and scoot by the movie footage.
The exhibit ends just as it begins ... but about a decade later. Those children featured at the very beginning are grown. And, now they are fearful about the start of a new war ... World War II.
North Carolina and World War I runs through Jan. 6, 2019. Admission is free.