While World War II is commonly seen in the U.S. as a massive unified collective effort, the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg aims not only to tell that story, but also highlight the role of the individual, from frontline soldiers to battle support staff, from “Rosie the Riveter” keeping industry alive to how her children at home helped.
The ability to focus on such individual experiences is a key talent of Karen Stevenson, the museum’s former manager of volunteers and visitor services director who was hired as director in July after a monthlong national search.
“She was the standout in our interviewing,” said Joseph Bell, deputy executive director of historic sites at the Texas Historical Commission, which is responsible for the museum as a state historic site. “We were lucky that she accepted the position.”
Bell praised Stevenson’s extensive management experience from prior positions in the Pacific Northwest and Texas, and said she is well-prepared to lead the museum, which offers what it describes as “the nation’s most comprehensive account of World War II in the Asiatic-Pacific theater,” also known as the Pacific War.
Stevenson called the Pacific War “an incredibly complex story of the human condition,” and said she focuses on how visitors might relate to the challenges Americans faced at the time.
“Here, we sometimes try to make it a very small picture, one that I can personally relate to,” she said. “And if I can personally relate to it, and I can take it home with me, in my head or in my heart, and consider the challenges that were faced by an individual,” the museum will have achieved its goals.
An ability to connect
In the museum field, how exhibits are presented to visitors is referred to as “interpretation.” Gen. Mike Hagee, president and CEO of the Admiral Nimitz Foundation, which manages the museum, said Stevenson possesses particular interpretive skills that museums today find of great value.
Effective interpretation, Hagee said, is “making it real for the individual, helping the individual have an emotional response to that particular picture, that particular artifact, or that particular event.”
That might be a scrap of rubber collected in the 1940s by a child participating in a national drive for war materials. By allowing a visitor to hold that decades-old scrap in their hands, Hagee said, the museum is “trying to make that experience come alive … to feel and to gain that tactile experience, and it means a lot more than just looking at it in a display case.”
Or searching online, Stevenson said.
“What we’re looking for is something that people can’t find when they Google,” she said. “We want to take that down to the kid that was standing in the trench with a gun and make it as personal as we can.”
In her earlier roles at the museum, Stevenson helped develop and refine such methods with prior museum director Rory Cartier, with whom she worked to achieve accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums and affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution.
Detailing how one person’s seemingly minor contributions affected the overall effort is at the heart of Stevenson’s philosophy, honed by years of observing directly how people engage information.
“We can certainly limit our stories to battles and bullets, we’ve got more than enough data to do that. But if we’re not able to connect the story to something within the person walking through the museum gallery … that reminds them that war is about an extraordinary, complicated set of values,” then an opportunity to create connection and empathy is lost, she said.
Humility, discipline, victory
If landlocked Fredericksburg — far from any ocean — seems an unlikely place for a museum dedicated to the Pacific War, the institution’s founding inspiration reveals the reason for its location.
Chester William Nimitz was born in Fredericksburg in 1885, and lived with his widowed mother and paternal grandfather Charles Nimitz at Nimitz’s steamship-shaped hotel on Main Street. Perhaps inspired by the naval theme, the younger Nimitz graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and went on to become a U.S. Navy commander recognized for his bravery and leadership.
Less than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nimitz was ordered to take command of the entire Pacific Fleet. His forces won important victories, and he was regarded as a thoughtful, congenial, and accessible leader, according to the biography page on the war museum’s website.
Stevenson noted that at one point during the war Nimitz hosted an “Old Texas Roundup” for all Texans serving in the Pacific, serving a barbecue lunch to 40,000 sailors, soldiers and Marines and pitching horseshoes with them afterwards.
The new “Legacy of Leadership” exhibit examines the values Nimitz learned early on from his family and friends, who Stevenson said helped him develop humility and discipline. But she said the museum also respects his stated wish to focus less on him and more on the two million service members under his command who fought and sacrificed to achieve victory.
Many of them are represented on plaques inside the museum grounds, Stevenson said. “One of the things that we’re aiming to do is never, ever forget those people who served,” she said.
From ordinary to extraordinary
Both Hagee and Stevenson emphasized the role of education in the museum’s programming, and one of Stevenson’s priorities reflects that emphasis. She and and museum leardership are currently exploring a plan to convert part of the gift shop to a permanent STEM-focused exhibit for children, to meet the challenge of presenting war as “more than G.I. Joe toys and wind up planes.”
For example, in order for tanks to be effective machines of war, regular behind-the-scenes maintenance is required. Stevenson said tank treads had to be changed out according to the changing landscapes they had to traverse, which reveals one of many day-to-day challenges met by what Hagee called “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.”
Stevenson posed several questions as examples for kids to ponder: how did soldiers deal with bugs? Rain? Cold weather? How did they eat? “Really simple stuff that we deal with all the time, but you don’t think about the role their ecosystem played in the war. And that’s something that kids can understand.”
Having served in Vietnam, Hagee knows that “war is just terrible,” and acknowledged that there might be some reluctance to visit a war museum, but he emphasized the lessons available to all.
“We’re here telling stories about how ordinary people respond to extraordinary events,” including people on all sides of the conflict, he said. “I think that’s important, and the staff here does too.”