By Robin Miller
January 22, 2013
Belvin Bergeron was only 18 years old when he marched through Europe in this uniform, the one hanging here in the West Baton Rouge Museum’s main gallery.
His name is different from ones heard in movies. It’s a Louisiana name, a name from home. And this is the U.S. Navy uniform he wore when he was a teenager.
He didn’t carry an iPhone, his main concerns were anything but Facebook postings. He was fighting for his country, following orders. Surviving in hope of returning to home and family.
The reality of his world was different — different, too, for the people who attended the book club discussion a couple of weeks earlier.
It was Bergeron’s uniform that brought the book club to mind. The museum invited several representatives of what former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book pegged as the “Greatest Generation” to visit with a group of local high schoolers.
“They toured the exhibit, and the kids were really interested in what the adults had to say,” Julie Rose said. “It was great to see. They were all asking questions.”
It’s only natural that the children would be filled with questions after walking through the gallery. The photos, alone, in Our Lives, Our Stories: America’s Greatest Generation tell the stories not of people three generations older but of people their own age.
People who spent their childhoods in an America during a time where food meant more than money, a place where they spent their teens and early 20s fighting the Nazis overseas or working at home in support of the war effort.
They lived in an America that stood together rather than divided. And that America embarked on economic prosperity after the war, ushering in a modern age.
It’s all mapped out in this national touring exhibition. But Bergeron’s uniform has a way of bringing the story home.
“Lauren has done her magic with this exhibit like she does with so many by adding artifacts from our permanent collection, along with some that are on loan,” Rose said. “She’s also added some local narratives.” Rose is the museum’s director. She speaks of Lauren Davis, the museum’s curator.
Davis has localized this show, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The exhibit was organized and developed by the Minnesota History Center/Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minn., which is why photographs and narratives highlight people in the Midwestern state.
And though Minnesotans certainly are representative of Americans during that time, Our Lives, Our Stories really wouldn’t be “ours” unless some Louisiana voices were added.
Like that of Bergeron’s. His uniform represents his voice, and he was in the same age group as the kids attending the book discussion that day. The uniform represents how he spent the latter part of his teen years, how he left the United States as a kid and returned as an adult, how he was just one of many in this generation whose life was shaped by experiences during the Great Depression, World War II and the economic boom that followed and led to the burgeoning of the Civil Rights era.
The exhibit guides visitors through this generation’s journey not only through photos and panels but interactive installations, including a soda fountain, the 1950s version of a modern kitchen and digital touch screen videos.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that visiting the West Baton Rouge Museum’s main gallery is like walking into a miniature version of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It’s that technically advanced, and visitors have until Jan. 7, 2013, to see it.
The story begins by walking through the main door, then turning right. The soda fountain is in full view, but there are photos to see, stories to read along the way. These are more than history book entries; they’re real faces to connect with the words.
Visitors are walking through America in the Great Depression, which ends when they take a seat at the soda fountain, specifically on the middle stool.
This signals an announcement from the radio on the counter. It’s Dec. 7, 1941, and the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.
Voices flow over the radio, reminiscing about where they were and what they were doing that day. Some people, no doubt, were sitting at the counter of a soda fountain not unlike this one. Many of them young. And many of them knowing they would soon be training for their missions overseas.
But there were also those who stayed home, mostly women. Their stories are told here, too.
With men serving overseas, women took up the slack in factories and other places of work. One exhibit panel states that “More than 16 million American men and women threw themselves into the war effort.” But the panel bearing a comment by a woman named Evva Cornwell says more. She went to work at a factory canning food during the war.
“I am proud,” she said. “I am fighting famine by canning food at home.”
She also was one of many women who was earning her own money for the first time, thereby also giving them a sense of independence.
“And that changed things in America,” Rose said. “They were expected to return to their homes after the war, but they had had a taste of the working world.”
And this is where the exhibit ushers in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the American dream of owning a home, maybe even one with the idea of a modern kitchen as presented here.
Feel free to open drawers and cabinets. And don’t hesitate to touch the screen of the example of an early television nearby. Yes, this also was the age that introduced television, and a touch of the screen will deliver examples of the earliest of television programs and commercials, including Gunsmoke.
Those who don’t remember Gunsmoke are probably familiar with the show through reruns on cable television. But on this screen, Matt Dillon walks out as the young, good-looking U.S. marshal in the series’ first years.
Now, this is only one of the exhibit’s many touch screens. Back up into the World War II years, and you’ll find more with an example of a Walt Disney-produced bombadier training film, more stories of women who worked on the home front and stories of war.
The people telling the stories are real, not thinking of themselves as great for doing something great. But then, that’s how they earned their title, the title of Brokaw’s book.
The exhibit ends with fashions from the 1950s era, then explains how all of these changes set up the beginning of the Civil Rights era.
It also displays maps, showing how Americans started venturing out, becoming tourists of their own country.
Belvin Bergeron’s uniform tells the story of his part in this.
And the exhibit tells his generation’s story.