Fort Riley Museum Director Bob Smith allowed local media on Friday to tour the main museum building, which has been under renovation since spring 2018 and is planned for a spring or summer 2022 reopening.
Museum officials took over control of the main building earlier this year after the body of the building underwent a complete renovation and restoration. Officials say it will bring the museum on par with the likes of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, the World War I museum in Kansas City and the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan.
Instead of one building, the museum will feature a complex of buildings to include the Cavalry Museum (main building), the 1st Infantry Division Building (to the south), and the Education Building (to the north).
Smith spoke on the initial move in January of 2018, which saw their staff vacate the building, and drafting up plans as far back as 2015, and consulting with designer Healy Kohler, out of Washington, D.C.
Smith hoped to mirror Kohler’s previous works with the Museum of the American Revolution.
“So this is really, top-notch people. In New York City, the folks that did this [project]Whirlwind Creative, they’ve got a huge website of museums. So we sat down with them and had many, many meetings asking, “What’s your vision… What do you want to put into this museum?” We actually have the workbooks, where we know exactly what artifact goes in what case, for when the fabricators come because that design work was done,” Smith said.
Smith says in designing the reimagined museum, it was essentially like writing a blog, but very technical in nature. There are many moving parts to ensure a display case has all the artifacts presented in a way that it doesn’t appear overcrowded.
“You say I want this, this, and this, in this case. This is the story, here’s the narrative, here are the captions, here are the photographs, and then what they did is come back to us and say, here’s what we wanted, and we think it should look like this,” Smith said.
Using those guiding principles, Smith says they continued to whittle down how they would put back together the museum in a more user friendly modality. The process of telling the 1st Infantry Division’s story went back and forth like that for nearly two years.
For this undertaking, Smith had said he made regular trips to the east coast to their firms, and worked along with his headquarters at Fort McNair and Fort Belvoir, sitting down to discuss final details only for the project to change when contractors came in.
“Things changed, I mean, your measurements change, because we found out we had to bring the walls down a little bit, then it came back to we’re going to have to figure out some of these changes in the cases,” Smith said. “So that’s my explanation why it’s taking the time that it is, we want to get it right so we’re gonna take our time.”
Smith says they have now gotten to a point, where they’re awaiting fabricators to come in, and place bids on the contract as envisioned by April, or early May. As Smith reflected on his memories of the renovation process, he recounted the tale of the “Door to Nowhere”.
“There was the door, put up in the 1890s, and then subsequently been walled up. You just went, and you looked at it, and you open it up and you looked at a wall, and we don’t know where it went with some of the original plans and things,” Smith said.
Smith also recalls a fond relationship with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Contractors, who by Smith’s own words he admittedly hounded on an almost daily basis.
“They were all so helpful. I could come over here, they gave me a hard hat and a vest, and let me snoop around and ask questions and things. They just were so accommodating,” he said.
As Smith explains, the First Infantry Building was constructed in 1903 and served many different purposes. Once used as the barracks for the band, another time used as a library, and another time it was an office building. Through the changes, Smith still wanted to actually tie all the stories together, and to the grounds outside with plans drafted to put major conflicts on display outdoors prior to him leaving.
During this process, they excavated a wall where a photo from the 1890’s remodeling of the building was found, of the workmen all standing around in old clothes in front of the building, just when they had finished it. Smith mentioned they had missed an opportunity of then recreating and exhibiting the modern-day and original, but had still wished to carry on the tradition of a letter to future generations as the 1970’s Museum curator had done during their own renovations.
“That’s one of the things I’ve wished we would have done because that would have been a great photo to put with the other. We also found when they did a remodel here in the 1970s, there was a note from all of the museum, the director, and the staff saying, “Hey, we accomplished this, and we’re putting [this letter]in the wall”, Smith said. “We’re talking about when the fabrication exhibits are started, we’re going to take and do a similar letter and stick it in the wall, so those future generations when they come along and see that we were here and we did this.”
Honoring Fort Riley’s soldier’s sacrifice not only on the battlefield but locally, the museum will feature the forest firefighting equipment from the 1990’s time period when volunteers helped fight fires in the Payette National Forest. To connect with living members who fought in WWII, the museum will also have local veteran Jim Sharp, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, immortalized with a wax statue and a video gallery with some of his stories he’s shared.
“We’re featuring him in the Nurnberg exhibit, we’ve got a picture that his family gave us of Jim as a young man at Nurnberg. We’re going to have his story up there about what he did when he was there at the with the tribunals and the war criminals and things,” Smith said. “So they’re gonna see the Nurnberg Door, they’re gonna see a young Jim Sharp, and I give him a lot of trouble about that, and those are the things we’re really excited about doing.”
Smith says for the finished project, he hopes to emulate the Imperial War Museum in London’s immersion, where it is described patrons can walk through the trench and get the experience of actually smelling food cooking in the dugouts. Smith also signified the actions of the previous Medal of Honor recipients will be featured as well as conflicts ranging from the American Civil War, WWI and WWII, the interwar period, Vietnam and then the Gulf War.
“You’re going to have the two-by-four construction of the whole WWII barracks, this is what the soldiers trained here in Fort Riley, here’s what they trained in the First Division, Camp Dix. It’s going to be circular, and here in the center of the floor there’s going to be a very large model of Omaha Beach, and it’s going to be sort of interactive,” Smith said. “Okay, you’re going to see the shells exploding, the LED lighting here, you’re going to move over here and it’s going to be divided. You’re going to have the occupation of Germany and Operation Gyroscope coming to Fort Riley in 1955. Soon as you’re finished with this, as you go upstairs, you’re going to be in the Vietnam era.”
A keynote item of the museum’s 20th-century gallery in the upstairs section will feature a World War II-era Jeep on display. To move this Jeep, Smith said it had to be taken apart and later this year will be reassembled when crews will bring some of the heavier components, including the chassis, via a crane. To support the added weight, the building floors have added reinforced steel.
“You were asking about the Jeep, well as we take it apart, it comes up here. Now, what we have to do is open a window here sometime soon, and bring the chassis up. This used to be two rooms if you remember, and this used to be a weapons room. What they found out is when they opened this building up between the two fireplaces, they come to beautiful pocket doors, because we found out that this was the Office of the Garrison Commander,” Smith said. “And we tried to figure out how we could incorporate them into this gallery, but it was a no-go, we couldn’t do it. So this room is going to be called the regimental room. And this is going to be the room where we have a lot of silver, we have a lot of trophies from the 1920s 30s. We’re going to put those in cases here. This is going to be our room for receptions.”
Sad that the windows had been painted over and closed for years Smith said they wanted to open it up and get their Bell Tower and clocks working, in addition to also dedicating their children’s museum.
“You have to use your imagination, this area used to be a temporary gallery. This is gonna be our children’s museum, We’re gonna have a little covered wagon in here. We’re gonna have a little 1870 type stove with and uniforms over here,” Smith said. “So if the adults want to go through and take their time, the kids can come over here, and try on uniforms and try on the covered wagon and things. And so this is going to be the children’s area. So that’s something totally new to the museum here.”
Much of the museum, guests will remember was a dark place that resembled a maze. Smith says that will be completely different. Gone are the windows covered with black and all black ceiling tiles, replaced with more open light and an open area for displays in a more modernized facility that still very much appears as it did in the late 19th century.
“We could actually walk between here on the second floor, we could walk behind exhibits,” Smith said. “I used to make a joke out of it, that if somebody gets turned in the “maze”, I would say, “Don’t worry, I will find them a couple of weeks later.” It was amazing, but we wanted to get rid of that. Because we want school kid groups, or soldier groups and things like that. It fit really well because now we can bring soldiers through, and they’re even talking about soldier orientation, spend the day at the museum, new soldiers learn about the history of your unit.”
Through the changes, they hope to make a virtual museum tour, for any and all to experience all the museum has to offer. As patrons are receiving the significance of the museum, Smith hopes they will understand the story of the First Infantry Division told chronologically in a 21st-century methodology.
“There’ll be a kiosk and some will say, “Okay, my father served in World War Two, I’d like to leave a note or one of his reminiscents”, so I’ll type that story in, and hit save. That will then be archived, and so that people can come in and they can feel a closeness to, or relevance to their story,” Smith said. “Here are their forefathers’ service, and they can go in there and do it, here’s his story, click, and it’s saved. So they become part of the museum and we want to make this an educational, but also a fun event.”
Bill Bernard and Brandon Peoples contributed to this story