A vital piece of American history is making its way across the United States, collected in an 18-wheel big rig.
The Honoring Our History traveling gallery is a mobile WWI exhibit on a 75-city tour including Austin on Thursday. The traveling gallery will be parked outside the Texas Military Forces Museum (TMFM) on the Camp Mabry military base, welcoming guests who are interested in exploring more detail about "The War to End All Wars."
The gallery is a collaborative project between the National WWI Museum and Waddell & Reed, a financial planning firm started 75 years ago by two WWI veterans. In order to commemorate their anniversary, Waddell & Reed chose to launch the year-long tour to honor the company's founders and all the soldiers who fought in this monumental world event.
"WWI is so pivotal to so much of our modern history but it often gets overshadowed by the bloodshed of WWII," explains TMFM Director Jeff Hunt, prior to a walk-through of the traveling gallery. "Although the U.S. only saw about 200 days of combat, WWI shaped the course of history all the way up to the present day. Without WWI, you would never have seen the development of the Cold War or the formation of the current day Middle East. That is why it's imperative to understand how and why it all came about."
According to Hunt, the nearly 20 year old TMFM has only one room and a few military vehicles and weapons unearthed from the first World War. A $6 million fundraising goal has been set to drastically expand this section of the museum to include a walk-through trench like those on the front lines and hopefully an actual WWI fighter plane.
To help in this fundraising effort, Waddell & Reed will split the proceeds donated Thursday equally between the TMFM and the National WWI Museum at Liberty Memorial, the museum where the traveling gallery began. "Partnering with Waddell & Reed is a win/win for us," declares Hunt, "as the traveling gallery provides an exciting temporary expansion to our archival materials, and they will be helping us to meet our fundraising goals."
Waddell & Reed spokesperson Kim Vo agrees that the pairing with the TMFM is a boon for both organizations in Austin. "The traveling gallery is a way for our company to give back to these nonprofits that are preserving the history of WWI, an event with which our founders were personally involved. We're hoping to raise around $10K this Thursday to help out the two Museums."
To demonstrate how personal this war was for the founders of Waddell & Reed, Chauncey Waddell's own authentic flight suit is included as part of the self-guided walking tour through the gallery. The tour also includes authentic French, German, British and American "doughboy" uniforms, a replica of a wartime trench, personal effects of soldiers fallen in battle, and a preserved 1918 single-man seated machine gun.
"Another exciting element of this traveling gallery is that folks have come forward at a lot of the cities where we've made stops at, and they have WWI artifacts that they want to donate to their local museums," reports Vo. "The tour is really reawakening a lot of interest in this time period that some people haven't thought about for a long time."
During the day on Thursday, Vo is expecting a steady stream of about 800 war historians to visit the traveling gallery, which took over two months to assemble and takes about 45 minutes to walk through from start to finish. The TMFM will also be well-manned by uniformed tour guides throughout the day. In the evening, Waddell & Reed will host a private dinner and celebration for WWI vets and special guests in the TMFM, which Hunt points out was originally a mess hall when Camp Mabry first opened in 1892.
If you've never seen the artifacts and memorabilia collected in the Texas Forces History Museum, the traveling gallery makes it especially worth the experience. What you may not have known about this, the first epic war to severely affect the entire planet and launch America on its trajectory for the next 100 years, will surprise you. To see the uniforms and personal effects of the soldiers who had never known foreign battle before this personalizes the terror of war in ways that books and video games cannot capture.
As Hunt explains, "The only thing we can do as museums is to inspire others to want to learn more. Realizing this is not just a study of the past makes us all better citizens in the future."
In this way, the Honoring Our Heroes traveling gallery is doing more than sharing two men's shared passion for war memorials. It is making more informed Americans and better global citizens every stop along the way.
Austin is the 27th city on the 75 city tour. See the traveling gallery's complete schedule here.