D-Day at 80

June 2024 View more

By Jeff Banowetz

Cantigny commemorates the 80th anniversary of D-Day with an expansive new outdoor exhibit

The First Division Museum’s D-Day gallery
The First Division Museum’s D-Day gallery

Anyone who’s visited the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park (1S151 Winfield Rd., Wheaton) will likely recall its immersive D-Day exhibit, which re-creates the beaches of Normandy and the hazards soldiers faced when they landed in Europe on June 6, 1944. This summer, to mark the 80th anniversary of the largest amphibious invasion in history, Cantigny is expanding upon its indoor exhibit with a new creation that takes full advantage of the park’s broad outdoor space. Opening June 6, Nothing But Victory will feature sculptural elements surrounding the museum to give visitors a better understanding of the invasion’s landscape. “I was there in Normandy in 2017, and for those who have been there on the beach, looking across the water, and the sand, and up these hills, there’s nothing that can top that to reflect on those moments,” says Jessica Waszak, curator of the First Division Museum at Cantigny. “Many people may never make that journey, and I wanted to create that power of movement and place and memory here.”

Back in Wheaton, Waszak measured out 300 yards and realized that the park had a space similar to what she’d experienced at Omaha Beach in Normandy. “We have a slight incline to our hill, and that felt purposeful,” she says. “I thought this was a way that people could activate their own physical body and recognize the movement, even though they’re not in the same space.”

That idea was the spark that led to the new exhibit, which uses both realistic and artistic representations of the Normandy battlefield to provide an immersive experience as visitors approach the museum. These include sculptures and metal silhouettes of soldiers, troopships and landing crafts, plus the “hedgehog” obstacles lining the beach. Interpretive signs along the way help explain the fighting conditions and profile soldiers who stormed the beach.

“The idea is that we have an excellent museum space indoors, where we go through the day in detail, historically,” Waszak says. “This anniversary gave us the opportunity to oversize and exaggerate the visitor experience. The elements we created, rather than being realistic or purely history-driven, were more about emotion and a sense of place.”

A rendering of Cantigny Park’s new ‘Nothing But Victory’ exhibit
A rendering of Cantigny Park’s new Nothing But Victory exhibit

Cantigny’s Butterfly Hill represents the Normandy bluffs, and the exhibit continues through the French hedgerows on the grounds, which soldiers similarly had to navigate after reaching the top. The exhibit finishes behind the First Division Museum, where visitors will find mirrors, creating an illusion of endless white crosses and recalling the American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Inside the museum, an additional exhibit will highlight the D-Day service of seven well-known personalities—Yogi Berra, James Doohan, Medgar Evers, Sam Fuller, Bobby Jones, David Niven, and J.D. Salinger.

The outdoor exhibit was created with the help of Bridgewater Studio, a Chicago-based design firm that has worked with many of the city’s top museums. “It was an interesting project, in that we have this natural scale that aligns roughly to the scale of Omaha Beach,” says John Beckman, a senior vice president of Bridgewater Studios. “We thought about how we could take this larger-than-life moment in history and bring the symbols of that moment to bear without being too literal about what happened.”

It’s hard to fathom the size of the D-Day invasion, which involved 156,115 American, British, and Canadian troops, 6,939 ships and landing vessels, and more than 3,000 aircraft. “It’s the sense of place that’s hard to convey in a museum,” Waszak says. “I think this will be a unique interaction that people can have before getting more in-depth information as they walk through the D-Day exhibit indoors.”

Nothing But Victory runs through the summer during the First Division Museum’s regular hours, which are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Monday. Admission is free, although there is a parking fee at Cantigny—$5 during the week and $15 on weekends. More information is available at cantigny.org.


Photo: Cantigny Park