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Soldiers Memorial Museum makeover would go beyond air conditioning, though that's essential

The person in charge of the Soldiers Memorial Museum is excited about management shifting from the city to the Missouri History Museum. A bill to do just that is now before the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. And   Superintendent Lynnea Magnuson says she's hopeful that the building may now receive the care it deserves.

“This is something that when I started, I would never have dreamed of it happening,” said Magnuson.

The proposed plan would make the History Museum responsible for planning and overseeing renovations like HVAC installation and window treatment to improve climate control. The History Museum is already cataloging and evaluating the Soldiers Memorial collection, a process officially agreed to in August 2014. Renovations, operations and maintenance will be funded through private donations and the anonymous group Soldiers Memorial LLC, which is paying to process the collection.

The History Museum estimates that with $25 million for renovations and an annual operating budget of $1.25 million the institution can enter a new era.

Lynnea Magnuson holds a photo showing scrap metal drives held outside Soldiers Memorial during WW II.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Lynnea Magnuson holds a photo showing scrap metal drives held outside Soldiers Memorial during WW II.
Lynnea Magnuson discusses WWII scrap metal drives.

Soldiers Memorial was initially built to honor soldiers from St. Louis who died during World War I. The museum’s “heart” is a cenotaph, a giant empty tomb carved of marble and bearing the names of 1,075 soldiers. Construction began on the memorial in October 31, 1935, but wasn’t completed until May 30, 1938. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which became the Works Progress Administration, helped fund the project. The WPA provided roughly 8 million jobs from 1935 to 1943 -- many to local artists, sculptors and craftsmen. Walter Hancock created the four equestrian monuments on the outside of the building. 

bomb pins Soldier's Memorial
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Over 40 bomb pins from missions in the South Pacific are tagged with the drop location.

Lynnea Magnuson shares the story behind Larry Helm's collection of bomb pins.

Magnuson talks about the objects in the memorial as portals to the personal and touching narratives of their original owners. Larry Helm was a bombardier in the South Pacific who tagged and labeled the pins from more than 40 bombs he dropped while in the service.

Earl Szwabo was imprisoned in a prisoner of war camp in Japan for 42 months. He was rescued after being seen in b-roll footage of a Japanese news story. His story is presented alongside artifacts that belonged to Lt. George Pearson, who was also interned in a POW camp.

For Magnuson, these items and the stories behind them relate directly to the lives of soldiers returning from current conflicts. “It’s a shared experience that transcends age,” said Magnuson, “This is a place where people talk to each other a lot about this sort of thing.

A painting of Lt. Comdr. Edward O'Hare hangs in the east gallery of Soldiers Memorial Museum
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
A painting of Lt. Comdr. Edward O'Hare hangs in the east gallery of Soldiers Memorial Museum

Missouri History Museum's Karen Goering explain's Edward "Butch" O'Hare's father's connection to the mob in Chicago.

Maintaining these items and the stories they help to tell takes a lot of work. The History Museum faces the dual challenge of maintaining fidelity to a building stuck in the late 1930s while developing a space that provides a more user-friendly experience and better protects the collection. According to History Museum Director of Operations Karen Goering said that under the plan before the aldermen some rooms will become multi-purpose rooms while others will continue to exhibit historical artifacts. Goering says the History Museum and Soldiers Memorial’s two missions are aligned: Make sure the objects tell a story.

“That’s how people learn history, when they understand the story, when they understand the emotion behind an artifact, that’s when there’s an emotional attachment,” she said. 

She wants the Soldiers Memorial and History Museum partnership to better help visitors form that attachment.