Sunday, March 10, 2019

First Division Museum of Cantigny Park: Learning the History of The Big Red One

First Division Museum   of  Cantigny Park  Wheaton, IL

First Division Museum of Cantigny Park: Learning the History of The Big Red One

The Army's 1st Infantry Division or The Big Red One was the first Army division to deploy and engage in WWI, WWII and Vietnam. The First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Illinois takes visitors through the history of the First Division using a multimedia experience including artifacts, video, sound, virtual reality and more. My father served in the 1st Infantry Division during Vietnam, so we feel a particular connection to the museum. The museum was recently enhanced with new exhibits in 2017 that increase engagement and add more stories of the division. The museum does an excellent job of unfolding First Division history for a variety of ages.


Uniforms and weapons on display at the First Division Museum showed changes throughout the years both for the First Division and enemy combatants
Uniforms and weapons on display showed changes throughout the years.
Service in WWI

The 1st Infantry Division was initially organized for combat in WWI. Thus, the museum includes over 100 years of history of the division. Colonel Robert McCormick, who owned the estate where the museum is today, served in WWI in the 1st Infantry Division. McCormick fought in the battle of Cantigny after which his estate is named. The story of the First starts with WWI.

Entering the trenches in WWI in the First Division Museum of Cantigny Park
Entering the trenches in WWI.
The 1st Infantry Division is known as the "Big Red One" due to the large red one on its patch.

The mix of elements appeal to a variety of ages and allow all visitors to learn the history of the First. Exhibits detail the role of the division, the breakdown of units and engagements. Additionally, the personal stories of soldiers are told. In this section, you walk inside of a trench which appeals to even the younger visitors. Near the trench is a detailed explanation of how trenches are constructed appealing to older visitors.

WWII

The First Division saw action in a variety of theaters during WWII including Africa, Italy and throughout other areas of Europe. Visitors walk through a variety of scenes and sit in a landing boat to watch a short video. Additionally, maps, artifacts including weapons, uniforms and medals and the stories of individual soldiers round out the experience.

Fighting at the Battle of the Bulge scene including a tank in the First Division Museum of Cantigny Park
Fighting at the Battle of the Bulge
Vietnam

Next, we entered the jungle to learn about the Vietnam War. Exhibits presented the unique difficulties the First Division faced while fighting in Vietnam. Detailed maps and placards provided insight into operations with extra emphasis on the use of helicopters. While we learned a lot about the war, I felt that the displays were not too overwhelming. Once again, personal stories were added to the exhibit adding another level of emotion and understanding.


Additional exhibits also displayed uniforms and personal artifacts from veterans. Viewing personal items add a meaningful and emotionally tangible layer.

Artifacts from soldiers bring the history of the 1st Infantry Division to a personal level at the First Division Museum.
Artifacts from soldiers bring the history of the 1st Infantry Division to a personal level.
Duty First

The new Duty First exhibit familiarizes visitors with the First Division's more recent missions in the Cold War, Africa and Middle East. The experience includes a couple of virtual experiences. We tried a virtual experience that put you right inside training for a raid. Additional personal stories add more dimension to the raw history. Duty First is a wonderful and informative addition to the museum.

Virtual reality experience learning about training for a raid.
Virtual reality experience learning about training for a raid.
I have visited the First Division Museum several times and take a new piece of knowledge back with me. During this visit, I learned about the First Division's role augmenting forces in West Berlin during Berlin Wall tensions. A segment of the wall rests at the museum.

Segment of the Berlin Wall at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park.
Segment of the Berlin Wall at the First Division Museum.
Tank Park

Outside of the museum is a tank park including tanks from WWI through Desert Storm. A walk through provides an interesting history of the tank. Of course, kids like to climb them as well! Unfortunately, it was pouring during our visit so we did not get to stroll through all of them. But, we will have a wonderful spring to day to do that soon no doubt!

The Tank Park at Cantigny Park takes you through the history of the tank from WWI through Desert Storm.
The Tank Park takes you through the history of the tank.

Overall Impressions:

The museum is incredibly well put together and includes unique engagement opportunities throughout. The subject matter is presented in away that visitors of all ages will learn about the First Division. For those with young children, I did not really find much that was intense but you can easily skip by any of the exhibits if need be. The museum is not huge but the exhibits are detailed enough that it does take a little while to go through. The First Division Museum does a fabulous job of unfolding the story of the First Division both on a historical as well as personal level.

Experiencing the Revolutionary War during the Revolutionary War Reenactment at Cantigny Park.

To Know about the First Division Museum:

  • Research Assistance is available if you are researching the First Division.
  • Cantigny Park hosts a couple of reenactments each year which pair very well with the museum.
  • Admission is free; parking is $5 - $10 depending on season.
  • While visiting, you can also visit the McCormick House and explore the gardens.

First Division Museum of Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Illinois: Learning the History of The Big Red One


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