New museum exhibit in Indianapolis explores Jefferson Proving Ground
Madison group helped create
exhibit for state museum
(November 2013) – A new interactive exhibit at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis helps to share the full story of the people who have loved and worked on the land that today serves as Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge.
This photo of a howitzer canon
is part of the JPG exhibit on
display at the Indiana State
Museum in Indianapolis.
Last year, members of the Jefferson Proving Ground Heritage Partnership traveled to the Indiana Historical Society Museum, and while there they realized that the exhibits did not cover the Jefferson County Proving Ground.
The JPG site was established during World War II, and from 1941-1994, the U.S. Army base served as a testing site for ammunition, earning Madison the nickname of “Boomtown” as windows would shake from the explosions. Yet, before the once 55,000-acre site rang with munition blasts, it was home to more than 2,000 residents who had to leave their homes and communities to make way for the testing grounds.
The JPG Heritage Partnership is dedicated to preserving the story and history of the area and the communities that once stood on the ground. The members realized that the Jefferson County Historical Society was another place where this story could be told, so they approached museum officials about the possibility of working together on an exhibit.
The result is a 13-panel interactive display that brings to life the journey of the site from a farming community to military instillation to a national wildlife refuge.
On Sept. 5, seven members of the Partnership attended the opening of “The Jefferson Proving Ground Journey,” a new entry in the Indiana Historical Society’s “Destination Indiana” exhibit. Consisting of 273 different “Journeys,” “Destination Indiana” allows visitors to “travel through time” using digital technology, touch screens, and displays of historic images and documents as a way explore and understand the story of Indiana.
The exhibit includes rare photos from the churches and homesteads that once stood on the land, information on what it took to safely test weapons, and a look at the site at it is today. “We were very pleased and awestruck at how beautiful a job they did,” says Partnership member Mike Moore.
Amy Lamb, Media Relations Manager for the Indiana Historical Society, said she believes that the story of the communities that once stood on the land is part of a national story of the sacrifices made during World War II. “I didn’t know about everything that went on down there with people giving up their homes. We’re hoping to share that previously unknown story with visitors to the History Center.”
Barb Dirks, Director of Collections Digital Resources, says, “It’s a very emotional story.” She added that it is important to remember the sacrifice that farmers and community members made in giving up their land and homes for the war effort. She says that while many people outside of southern Indiana hear about the closing of JPG, the stories of the residents who had lived there were not as widely known.
The JPG Heritage Partnership worked closely with the Historical Society and Dirks in the creation of the display. Moore collected and formatted the photographs for the “Journey” and wrote the initial version of the narrative that accompanies the display. The Partnership also provided $4,000 to assist with funding the digitization of the photos and the narration.
The final display was produced by the Boston-based company, Northern Light Productions, known for its work at the Smithsonian Institution. But Moore explains that the company “had to find a Midwest accented person to narrate it. The Historical Society didn’t want it to have a Boston accent”
Of the narrator finally selected, Moore says, “He does sound like he’s from Indiana.”
Dirks agrees that it was important to find the right voice for the project and also points out that as with all their exhibitions with narration, careful attention was paid to the pronunciation of family and place names.
While Moore hopes that many people will be able to experience the exhibit on the large touch screens at the Indiana Historical Society, he said the images and text will be available on DVD at the Jefferson County Historical Society. He is also pleased to note that one of the photos from “The Jefferson Proving Ground Journey” has been selected for inclusion as part of the Indiana Bicentennial Train, a special four-year exhibition that will travel throughout the state.
Dirks is particularly proud that the “Journeys” exhibit will help introduce the story of JPG to a wider audience than ever before. “As we do these stories, we never take them down.”
The images that make up the exhibit can now be found online at the Historical Society’s website (www.jchshc.org) and are available for teachers to use in their classrooms. This online resource makes much of the information from the display available to an audience beyond those who step through the doors of the Historical Society.
“I am always amazed at who contacts me about our digital collections,” says Dirks. She points out that people all over the world use the site, and that she has assisted researchers from as far away as Singapore. “You just never know who is going to see these images.”
• For more information, visit: www.IndianaHistory.org.
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