- Written by Andrea Gross Andrea Gross
It’s one thing to envision yourself as a fictional person who represents a group of anonymous folks, like a soldier or farmer. It’s another to imagine the thoughts of a real man or woman whose story has been well documented.
But here, in three extraordinary museums, each visitor actually takes on the identity of a particular individual whose future is still unknown.
Upon entering the museum, the participant is randomly assigned to follow a specific person who took part in a historic event.
Through a combination of digital technology, three-dimensional displays, and a host of diaries, documents, and artifacts, he is able to see his alter ego’s actions and become privy to his thoughts.
According to the old proverb, you can’t truly know someone until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. These are walks you’ll long remember.
A Civil War Soldier
I’m communing with 13-year-old Delavan Miller, a drummer boy in the Union Army of the Potomac, circa 1862.
As I stop in front of a diorama depicting a typical military camp, Delavan confides that he had considered “falling out of line.” Across the room, my husband is listening to 21-year-old Eli Pinson Landers, who fought for the South.
Delavan and Eli were real people, and my husband and I are using personal digital players to listen to their actual words, as recorded in letters and journals and spoken by actors.
The two boy-men fought for different causes, yet their thoughts were remarkably similar.
And this — the similarities of those on both sides of the war — is the overriding lesson of the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier at Pamplin Historical Park (www.pamplinpark.org) in Petersburg, Virginia.
As I don my headphones and listen to Delavan describe his experiences, I suddenly hear a gasp from another visitor. Her “comrade” was describing a battle when a loud shot interrupted his words.
“He was killed,” she says quietly.
A Titanic Passenger
The stars are out tonight. The weather is chilly; I pull my wrap around me more tightly … Oh my! What’s that? The ship shudders. I reach for a chair to keep my balance.
My name, according to the “boarding pass” I received when I entered the Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri, is Eleanor Widener, and my cabin number aboard the ill-fated ship is C-80-82.
The Titanic left Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912, and was due to arrive in New York seven days later. Five days into the journey and about 1,300 miles northeast of its destination, it struck an iceberg. Most of the passengers drowned.
Unlike other museums that match visitors with a real person and depict history through the diaries and photographs of that person, Branson’s Titanic Museum (www.titanicbranson.com) recreates the past in its three-dimensional glory through a half-size replica of the actual ship as well as more than 4,000 artifacts.
Thus, in my role as the real Eleanor, I spend what may be my few remaining hours in this world climbing the grand staircase, shivering in the cold night air, and finally sitting in a lifeboat and praying that I’ll make it to safety.
Finally the real me goes to the ship’s Memorial Hall to find out what happened to my counterpart. Eleanor survived. Her husband and son did not.
In their honor, she donated more than $3.5 million to establish a Harry Elkins Widener Library at Harvard University, at the same time insisting that all Harvard students pass a swimming test before graduation.
After all, Harry might have saved himself had he been able to swim.
A World War II Aviator
I’m so busy munching a beignet that I almost miss my train.
I sink into my seat on the recreated Pullman car and stare at my digital dog tag. It contains the individual story of “my” veteran, the person I will follow as I go on a multimedia journey through World War II.
Suddenly the train stops, and I’m in the Campaigns of Courage Pavilion, a 32,000-square-foot exhibition hall at New Orleans’ National World War II Museum (www.nationalww2museum.org).
It contains two permanent exhibits: “The Road to Berlin,” where people become immersed in the sights and sounds of war-torn Europe, and “The Road to Tokyo,” which leads visitors on a digital and experiential journey through the jungles of Southeast Asia and onto the beaches of the Pacific.
I begin in Europe, where, at various stops, I use my dog tag to unlock the story of John Morgan.
He was quite a man — a Medal of Honor winner, a POW, and a member of the unit that inspired the award-winning film Twelve O’Clock High. I feel honored to have known Lt. Col. Morgan, if only for a few hours.
I also feel incredibly lucky. I’ve accompanied three people on my museum visits, and they all survived.
My husband wasn’t as fortunate. His alter egos left him thrice dead.