By Brook Schultz
Elm Staff Writer
History collides with the Chestertown community in the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience’ss new gallery exhibition “Chestertown Remembers WWII.”
The StoryQuest gallery commemorates local citizens’ involvement in World War II through stories and pictures collected by Washington College students. It is currently on display now through Feb. 6 in Gibson Center for the Arts. Joseph Swit, a student working on the project, said, “Despite the inclement weather, we still had an enthusiastic turnout, and we are excited to put on more exhibits this semester.”
The work for the project began in fall 2013 with two students, seniors Rachel Brown and Shane Benz. They began collecting oral history interviews in a joint project with Heron Point retirement community in Chestertown. At first, the focus was just on the World War II veterans who would share their experiences in the military and overseas. The project progressed and now the group is searching for stories about veterans in Kent County and surrounding counties.
Project Leader Michael Buckley said that the Starr Center’s StoryQuest Program is “an extension of my work as a host/producer for a radio series and a book called ‘Voices of the Chesapeake Bay.’” Buckley interviews people who live in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed about their lives, careers, and adventures.
“The purpose of the Voices series and of the StoryQuest Oral History Program is to create a bigger ‘sense of place’ about where we all live, be it in the watershed or in the world. It’s too easy to go through life without developing an appreciation for the bounty that surrounds us and for the amazing creativity and productivity that make up our communities,” Buckley said.
Through the support of Iron Mountain, a company that deals with archiving documents, along with the support of Dr. Davy H. McCall, the project was able to flourish and aid the continuation of the World War II Project. The purpose of this project, according to Buckley, is to connect students with elders to better understand the years surrounding World War II.
Swit is among one of the 30-plus “Questors” who have participated in over two years of recording in-person audio interviews and collecting images and artifacts from the World War II era. Before students even get to the interview stage, they have to research the war to gain a better understanding of the time and its values and then learn how to conduct oral history interviews. Lastly, they learn how to preserve and share their work.
“By interviewing veterans, as well as everyday people who lived through the war at home, we are able to paint a picture of Chestertown during the war. Using this approach, we can take a huge international event like World War II and focus it on Kent County and Chestertown to give people a better sense of what things were like back then,” Swit said.
The StoryQuest group interviewed well over 50 people who experienced the war firsthand and “collected hundreds of hours of stories that we have published on iTunes and are preserving in the college archives,” Swit said. Beyond that, the group has scanned, digitized, and photographed a plethora of historical artifacts.
“You will be amazed at how many stories our Questors have gathered for this exhibition,” Buckley said. “The main attributes required for a successful oral history project are passion and persistence.
Director of the Starr Center Adam Goodheart said that the exhibition is valuable in several ways. “First of all, it documents the stories of both veterans and civilians who participated in one of the most epochal events in modern history — and in so doing, it honors their contributions and affirms their importance,” he said. Goodheart also believes that “it serves as a connection between the College and the surrounding community — and a connection between two generations, the interviewees’ and the students’, separated in age by as much as 70 or even 80 years.”
The projects were originally mounted at Chestertown’s RiverArts gallery under StoryQuest’s co-instructor Lani Seikaly but are now both on display in the William Frank Visual Arts Hallway in Gibson. The gallery is open all day, so that people can visit at their leisure. They can slowly peruse each wall with the ability to leave and revisit and find more stories each time they look. Buckley likened it to visiting the famous Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“The gallery is a collection of some of the most compelling images and story excerpts we’ve found,” Swit said. “I hope that people in the community appreciate the incredible stories that their neighbors are telling about such an important moment in American history.” They also hope that the publicity of this gallery exhibition and upcoming events will help encourage more people to share any stories or artifacts they have relating to World War II.
On Friday Feb. 5, there will be a “First Friday” reception for the Dr. Davy H. McCall World War II History Project from 5-6 p.m. open to all who want to attend. Buckley urges those interested to celebrate the efforts of the StoryQuest students and will also be looking for more students to help continue the project. Students of any major and class year can join StoryQuest. For more information, students can visit the StoryQuest page on the Starr Center website.