The Mighty 8th Museum, and Why Museums Exist
NON-BORING HISTORY American Airmen in WWII England Remembered in A Corner of the Deep South, and Museums as Stories v. Stuff
How Long is this Post? 6, 500 words or approx 30 minutes to read (including video transcript) Video is about 20 minutes.
Every day, thousands of cars pass through the suburbs of Savannah, Georgia on the I-95 freeway, the major route up and down the East Coast of the USA. Even at a glance at high speed, it’s hard to miss a B-47 airplane from 1947 (post-WWII), parked right next to the road, or the odd little church behind it, and the big building behind them both, although the meaning of any of these is a mystery to the vast majority of passersby.
A brown sign advising travelers to take the next exit for the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force likely only excites people who are military history buffs, and that’s not me, or likely you.
What can I say? It’s hard for a museum to market to people zooming past at high speed. I mean, we’ve all been there as travelers, too: We zip by a brown sign for a museum or history attraction, and think, “Hmm, wonder what that is?” And then we wonder where we can grab a snack.
Or maybe we think, “A museum, huh? It's probably boring/snobby, and I might get trapped by somebody talkative if I go in.”
A large part of the problem is that we’re all a bit confused about what museums are, and no wonder. Unless and until you exit the freeway, pull into the parking lot, and set foot in the Mighty 8th (as everyone local calls it), you won’t know that this museum offers not just stuff to look at, but stories that will move you, make you think, trouble you, and amuse you.
I suppose someone could stand at the freeway exit with a loudspeaker, and yell: “This way, folks, to meet young guys from places like Iowa and Alabama and New York and Vermont, who came to Georgia in 1942, learned to fly, traveled to Europe to beat Hitler, dropped bombs, and often didn’t come home to their devastated mothers. And it’s also a love letter to England from those who did survive, and never forgot the friends they left behind, or the kindness of the country that hosted them.”
But somehow I don't think this would work.
Cabinets of Curiosities: Why Museums Sometimes Delight, and Often Disappoint
I’m getting back to the wonderful Mighty 8th Museum. Bear with me. But thinking about it got me thinking about museums in general. There are many reasons why museums in the US often have a tough time staying afloat. Here are just a few to start with: Funding is a huge problem. Most are run by volunteers, with mixed results. School history education sucks, despite teachers’ best efforts.
Here’s one more: Just as there seem to be more people who want to write books than, you know, read them, we’re oversupplied with museums. Unfortunately, the oversupply is not of good museums like the Mighty 8th, those that make people glad they visited. But the Mighty 8th still has to compete with all the bad ones.
You see, just to add to the confusion, the word “museum” covers a lot of wildly different institutions, and, just as with “historian”, nobody regulates who gets to use the name “museum”. There is museum accreditation, but I suspect it’s expensive, and I know, as a museum junkie and public historian, that it’s not all that great. So we never really know if walking into museums will be a wise decision . . . or not.
And we can’t trust visitor reviews of museums, either: People worry they’re not “smart” enough to appreciate a museum. That they’re not good enough to walk in. That’s especially true when we’re talking a professionally-run museum with careful interpretation, which can be dauntingly posh from the outside, as opposed to what I think of as the “I used to have one of those” type of amateur museum filled with old toys or home appliances. (I love those, by the way. )
Because visitors get daunted, they tend to be kind, to be impressed by bells and whistles, faintly praising museums on TripAdvisor, saying “It was very interesting/informative” instead of saying “I was bored out of my mind, and I couldn’t get to the gift shop/cafe/exit fast enough.”
Why do museums vary so much, even if we allow for the fact that not everybody is interested in everything, so it’s hard for any museum to keep everyone in the family happy? Well, it's a long and complicated story I’m only just getting a handle on myself. And I ‘ve even taught public history as well as practiced it.
To understand why things are the way they are, it helps to know how museums started. They began with nerdy rich Brits who collected stuff in their “cabinets of curiosities” to show their friends.
Specifically, they likely started with Hans Sloane in 18th century London. Sloane’s marriage to a woman who owned several sugar plantations in the West Indies, employing enslaved labor, enabled him to collect 71, 000 books and knick-knacks. Rich gentlemen often collected what they called “curiosities”, weird and interesting objects they put in a glass case (a cabinet of curiosities) to show off to their friends. But Sloane’s was likely the biggest collection of them all.
Hans Sloane arranged to sell his stuff for cheap, as a sort of gift, to the British nation, on his death in 1753. I would have loved to have seen the Parliamentary committee discussions on this: “Old Hans Sloane’s interested in selling us his collection of curiosities for a deep discount after he pops his clogs. Any takers?” “Good grief, what would we do with 70,000 dust collectors?” Etc.
Sloane’s collections were indeed bought for Britain, and they were the seeds of the British Museum, the British Library, the Chelsea Physick Garden, and the Natural History Museum, all in London. In 2020, Hans Sloane got semi-cancelled, nearly 300 years after he died: The British Museum moved his bust into a glass case, along with labels about slavery and empire, which works for me as a solid bit of museum curating.
Okay, here’s an aside: As one critic has pointed out, a lot of Hans Sloane’s family money came at the expense of Irish people, since Sloane was part of the Anglo-Irish elite, and that should also be discussed on the museum labels. Plus it all reminds me of my old Scottish granny, educated only to 8th grade (age 13), who, confronted with a museum exhibit that showed all the parks and grand buildings that local factory owners gave to the city, supplied her own label. “Aye, they did a lot for Dundee,” she said. Pause. “Mind you, it was the workers’ money.”
These viewpoints are all good fodder for lively discussion, and a lot more fun than “Here’s some dead guy’s statue. Worship him.”
Hans Sloane's gift also determined what a museum would be, for the next two centuries: A building in a major city in which we stash unusual stuff so that people can come look at it, especially posh people. But early on, those the museum bosses saw as riff-raff also started showing up, and that had not been the plan . . . But the riff-raff persisted. As riff-raff, I’m deeply grateful. I still feel like some art galleries look that way at me, because they do (they’re the worst for this sort of thing).
Anyway, another issue with museums that persisted a long time after Hans Sloane snuffed it: Many museums until shockingly recently tended to be tedious stores of objects that Nerdy Guys Like, without much or any acknowledgment of the people involved. This included war materiel [not a typo], in the form of old guns, planes, and the like.
As a kid, I was never keen on military history, or its museums. My Dad once dragged me to see the RAF Museum in Hendon, North London, and all I remember is an oppressive sense of boredom as I looked at endless medals in glass cases.
But all that began to change when London’s Imperial War Museum did a massive remodel in the late 20th century. They kept a lot of stuff on display in glass cases, but they also made it more meaningful to non-buffs. They added pictures, music, sound effects, and, best of all, immersive experiences set in a WWI trench, which you could walk through, and the Blitz experience, where you could pretend you were in a shelter during an air raid. A bit cheesy, but who cares? That’s what imagination is for. This is how you get people interested. The trench and the Blitz experience were wildly popular. They still would be, if they had been updated instead of being destroyed.
Sadly, the museum authorities have had another remodel since, and while some of it is an improvement, the museum pretty much turned their backs on us riff-raff who like like things like the Blitz experience, thanks to a colossal failure to understand imagination, and probably massive battles over museum interpretative styles. I would love to read the committee meeting notes, let's put it that way. As my dad used to say, a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Hopefully, the Imperial War Museum will change course again in future.
Fortunately, this disaster didn’t happen before London’s Imperial War Museum had had an influence on museums, not just in Britain, but around the world. That included the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force in faraway Georgia.
The best museums are those that have adequate funding, and yet aren't under pressure to present a particular party line. And since good museums challenge what you think you know, they are never really profitable.
So, shockingly to some of you, many of the best, most enjoyable and rewarding museums in the US are publicly funded, and especially by the federal government. And actually, before you ask, I’m not thinking of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, which, last time I looked, really isn’t very good. It’s a massive cabinet of curiosities (Here’s Kermit the Frog! Carol Burnett’s dress made of a curtain for her Gone With the Wind parody! What fun! ) Yeah, nostalgia, not history. Go see the new African-American history museum instead, which I’ve heard great things about.
Government funding doesn't make museums partisan or even biased— quite the reverse. Good funding gives them the the most freedom possible to base their interpretations on what historians know, rather than what private funders expect, or demand. And government also funds engaging, even exciting, high-quality exhibits.
Look, an amateur museum, a cabinet of curiosities, can still be fun: You know I’m a sucker for roadside attractions and amateur museums. But amateur museums are likely to present their stuff and their stories without the bigger historical context that makes for the most thought- provoking experience. If you really want to learn something that rocks your world (and you do, right? That’s why you’re at NBH!) then professionally-run museums are the way to go. They are far more likely to be interpretive and story-based.
The National Museum of the Mighty 8th, to which we will now turn, is a nonprofit, and is not publicly funded. Occasionally, that shows. But it's headed by a professional public historian, it works with academic historians, and it has enthusiastic staff and volunteers, a coherent story and great exhibits. It’s absolutely worth getting off the freeway for.
Go have a look. I did, and I've never regretted it.
Checking Out the Mighty 8th
Because I loved the Imperial War Museum, I decided, at some point early in my residence in Georgia in the mid-90s, to stick my head around the door at what was then the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum. The “National” was a recent addition, and while I grasp the reasoning—it's not just for people in Georgia, folks! This is important!— the new name is a bit unfortunate, because it implies that this is a federal museum, and thus offers free admission, when, no, in fact, neither of these things is true.
I was taken aback by what I saw when I walked in: A breathtakingly vast entrance hall, with a massive fabric cover across the whole ceiling (it’s a silk parachute, I learned! Always ask!). More intimidating, it featured busts of important military people (sorry, that’s all I could guess) atop pedestals, and lots of flags.
The lobby was both impressive, and a bit worrisome in terms of how interesting it promised to be. Not a statue fan (who is?).
But I was greeted warmly by volunteers who turned out to be WWII vets, and immediately was excited to see a British phone box, as well as what was a pretty fair attempt at an English-style pub, and a large gift shop. And this was just the lobby. It’s huge.
After buying a ticket, I was shepherded into a darkened hallway, and this is where things became very cool. I saw an excellent display showing the background to World War II, including Nazi artifacts the Mighty 8th lads had brought home as trophies.
Highlights after that included a moving multimedia program that allowed us to follow a kid from his farm in the Midwest to terror in the skies over Germany, as well as a recreated room in a POW camp, and a wartime home.
(Ooh, this reminds me that London’s Imperial War Museum also got rid of its fantastic 1940s House, suggesting that it was artifact-driven guys who won the battle over the storytellers, just saying. )
Toward the end of the exhibits on my first visit to the Mighty 8th, the museum petered out into a cabinet of curiosities, an old-fashioned museum, more about the creators than the audience: Glass cases stuffed full of the bric-a-brac of wartime service.
I remember asking a friend, who had worked with (not for) the museum while it was developed, why it felt like two museums (one professional and telling stories as the focus, the other a bit amateur and focused on stuff) and he said, basically, they ran out of money. That was good to know. Since then, they've made modifications. And don’t worry: I’m not doing any of it, even the best bits of this museum, proper justice. Go, and you’ll be impressed.
Outside, visitors may wander through a chapel resembling a Saxon church in England, and a garden full of memorials to the units in which the men of the Mighty 8th served, and their friends who didn’t make it home. That part feels private, as though the guys who paid for this museum forgot we, the audience, were still there. And really, that's true: Their minds were 3000 miles and a lifetime away, and on friends who never got the chance to get old.
A Field Trip to Another World
Why is this museum here in south Georgia? Simples. The Mighty 8th Airmen in 1942 trained in Savannah, at what’s now Hunter Army Airfield. And after much discussion (my informed non-museum source tells me) the museum was built for easy access to the major freeway artery running down the East coast, in hopes of luring in people who otherwise wouldn’t know about the Mighty 8th.
There are pockets of great wealth in Savannah, and scattered around the rest of south Georgia, but, otherwise, it’s an impoverished place. Museum culture has long reflected that poverty: A lack of money, a lack of intellectual capital, and a resistance to interfering strangers characterized the museum scene.
The museum culture in Savannah has, however, started to improve very much in recent years, thanks to a large infusion of cash, much it from incoming Northerners. The Mighty 8th pioneered this, and it's my favorite museum in greater Savannah, not least because it has been so welcoming to children, and isn’t just the usual navel contemplation about the South. In case you’re wondering, my second favorites? The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, to which I took my students, and the Owens-Thomas House, which has made great progress in interpreting the lives of enslaved people.
I took kids to the Mighty 8th in the late Oughts. For a couple of years after I resigned in disgust from Georgia Southern in 2008, I thought about how best to continue my public history work with kids, which had involved elaborate immersive theatre programs about WWII England and medieval France, staffed by my lovely undergrad volunteers.
Now, post-Georgia Southern, it was just me, with a paid helper or two. I offered weeklong camps—think improvised museum experiences— for local kids in Bulloch County, Georgia, including Could You Be A World War II Kid? about the experiences of British children in WWII. Why all my emphasis on Britain? Social studies curriculum in Georgia hardly acknowledges that other countries exist until middle school, which is a bit late. I know British history well. And I could cheerfully address, and provide historical context around, issues like race without controversy, because I was talking about Europe. That’s also why I set my first time-travel novel, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, in wartime Britain and rural Georgia. Yes, I thought all of this through.
Our camp field trip was to the Mighty 8th Museum. Even if kids had visited before, they now arrived with much more historical context from our activities. Our tour guide at the Mighty Eighth was museum educator Heather Thies (interview below) who dressed as Rosie the Riveter. As you can see, the kids were gobsmacked by the vast rotunda:
And the kids’ excitement was very real:
It was so great to have the Mighty 8th nearby in south Georgia. Too often, the best museums are clustered together in the most major cities, making them hard to access for most people. This was a problem that the UK began addressing some years ago, and why you'll find a Tate museum in the seaside town of Southend, a Victoria and Albert branch museum in my hometown of Dundee, and an Imperial War Museum in Manchester.
Here in the States, the Smithsonian has worked with state humanities organizations (like my friends at Georgia Humanities) to bring modest traveling exhibitions to small towns, focused on stories told in portable banners, and supplemented by locally-organized events to put the exhibit into local context for everyone. But, yes, this is a more modest effort to expand professional museums’ reach from major cities, and represents the utterly inadequate funding that arts and humanities outreach gets in the States, especially in rural areas.
That's why the Mighty 8th being in Pooler is so great: We can bring kids from rural Georgia here. But let's not get too excited: Most area schools can't afford even to transport them to the museum. What a wasted opportunity. If you’re reading and your name is MacKenzie Scott, or you’re someone similarly overwhelmed with cash, that was your cue. Although, to be honest, a lot of school administrators can’t or won’t make time for field trips, and that’s everyone else’s clue about what a mess, exactly, public education has become.
Telling the Mighty 8th Story
The Mighty 8th Museum’s mission statement emphasizes that the Mighty 8th Air Force’s history didn’t end with World War II, but continues today. But as it is currently, the focus is squarely on WWII: It was built with donations from the original Mighty 8th airmen who served in WWII. They wanted to tell their story, to themselves and to us, to not be forgotten.
What the museum is trying to tell us is that it’s about people, not just military hardware. So who brings to life the artifacts and displays? Who’s charged with working with children and adults, all with short attention spans and limited knowledge of what the museum is about? The Museum’s Director of Education, Heather Thies, and her volunteers, that’s who. And they do a fantastic job, starting with Heather, whom you can meet below.
The Mighty 8th is not a museum that celebrates war, but one that remembers the stories of the people who served. Until and unless it moves on to commemorate the more complicated history of the role of the Mighty 8th in Vietnam and beyond, here is its story: “We were young, and told to fight Nazism. We came to England and did our bit. The English were kind to us. Some of us didn't make it home. Nothing about this was easy. But this is our shared story. Thank you for coming to hear our story.”
The Mighty 8th Air Force, like every fighting unit in the US military in WWII was segregated. It was all white guys. But the museum has in recent years (before the Great Awokening, mind) added the stories of the Fly Girls of WWII, and the Tuskegee Airmen, diversifying both their message and their appeal to visitors.
Now that all these WWII veterans are gone from the museum, their voices are starting to fade. What we make of the message they left, how we interpret it in light of the world we live in now, is up to us. Their work is done. The museum’s work, however, is only beginning.
Go see the Mighty 8th Air Force museum. Listen to it. Enjoy it. You’ll be glad you did. And don’t miss my chat with Heather Thies below!
A Chat with Heather Thies, Director of Education at the National Mighty 8th Air Force Museum, Savannah, Georgia
NOTE: A few weeks ago, I recorded this chat with the Mighty 8th Museum’s delightful educator, Heather Thies, about her work in 2022. Find out what a museum educator is, how Heather prepared to work with children and adults in a museum setting, and how pandemic and war in Europe have affected her work.
Here’s the video, or, if you prefer, you can read the edited transcript below.
Annette Laing: I'm delighted today to welcome Heather Thies. Heather is the director of education at the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia, which is right off the 95 freeway, and a suburb of Savannah, Georgia. So you probably have passed it if you've been on your way to Florida, seen the enormous World War 2 plane outside [I got that wrong. It's from 1947--A.] and thought, what the heck is that about? So I'm gonna chat with Heather today about her role at the Museum, and how the Museum's been affected, and her work has been affected, by the incredible disruption of the pandemic. So welcome, Heather.
Heather Thies: Thank you for having me today.
Annette Laing: Oh, I am delighted, and it's so good to see you, even if it is just on Zoom because I've been coming to the Mighty Eighth for years. It's been a long time. And speaking of long times, am I allowed to ask how long you have been at the museum?
Heather Thies: I just celebrated in January my 15th anniversary of being here. So a very long time.
Annette Laing: What were you doing before this?
Heather Thies: Before that, I was an elementary school teacher in California. So now I just teach in a different way. I'm in a museum instead of in a classroom
Annette Laing: It's all teaching! I know that you have a degree in public history from University of California, Riverside. Tell me how that prepares you to work in a museum.
Heather Thies: Well, to be perfectly honest, my teaching job . . . I taught second grade and third grade for the most part . . . that job taught me and prepared me far more for teaching here in the museum, being the education director and the tour guide, basically, far more than my master's degree. The Masters taught me how to interact with the artifacts safely. So that has been very important, that part,[learning from] my archival management class, wearing gloves or washing my hands and not wearing a lot of lotions, that kind of thing, and acid free, and whatnot. That has been very important. My undergrad, which was also in history, was a lot of reading and writing, learning how to interpret history, and cause and effect. And so that part prepared me. But yes, my teaching [helped] in figuring out how to do what I jokingly call infotainment. I have to give a lot of information, yes, but I need to do it in an entertaining way. And when you're dealing with second and third graders, who are like uhhhhh . . .You know, you learn very quickly.
I also taught in Southern California, and my students, a lot of them, English was not their first language: Spanish was. They all spoke English, and their English was definitely better than my Spanish. But I learned, I would use the bigger word, you know, the smart people word as we would say. And then, I would use the regular old word after it [to clarify]. And so I just continued that here as well, if there wasn't a visual to point something out.
WWII, being 75 years ago in human history, isn't that long [ago]. But given the technology, it might as well be the time of the dinosaurs, the differences between now and then. And so it really helped me, my teaching, and being used to explaining, coming up with ideas to compare now and then so that the kids would understand.
Here we get a lot of fifth grade [students], a lot of eighth grade [students] due to field trips. Fifth grade students learn about World War Two here in Georgia, and South Carolina. Eighth grade does Georgia studies. So they come here, and now, they're starting to come again on these big overnight trips. And then we get JROTC and, you know, other grades as well, but trying to relate now to then.
Annette Laing: You've also got to get past the fact that a lot of things that are around now, that were [also] around then, kids don't understand now, much less then. So you're talking a lot to kids. I can see how teaching third graders would prepare you to talk to anybody because that's been my experience.
You also get a lot of adults, and I want you to cast your mind back to 14 years ago, 15 years ago. When you started, there were a lot more World War Two veterans still with us. Have you seen the audience change? And then, who is coming? Are you seeing different kinds of folks? And in that time have the questions changed that people ask? I'm thinking of adults here, maybe more than kids.
Heather Thies: Our audience is different now than 15 years ago. When I started here, 15 years ago, I was in full-blown teacher mode still. I mean, my title is always been Director of Education, but then they did add in Director of Volunteers and I started to oversee that.
But I always laughed that it's a fancy title that basically meant tour guide, because that's what I did. A majority of my job was tour guide. And booking tours and whatnot. And so I spent a lot of time reading and studying the Eighth Air Force in World War Two, and trying to figure out how to get my tour to where I was giving them a lot of information, but I was saying it in a way that they could understand and be interested, and not fall asleep on me.
Some of my best ideas came just out of the blue. You know, I'm watching, you know, Frozen, the Disney movie. And in the very beginning, they're cutting blocks of ice, and I thought that's how I'm going to explain what an icebox is. A non plug-in refrigerator. And kids go, "Oh, that's what he's doing.”
So, you you never know where your inspiration will come from, for how you're going to explain. The kids have basically stayed the same. As for adults, the difference is, of course, 15 years ago, a lot more World War 2 veterans, and they brought in their families. We had a lot of them who were still volunteering and we had a lot who visited us just with our spouses, you know, they drove themselves or they would come with their families.
It's only in really the last three to four years that it is a huge marked difference. If the World War Two veterans do come in, it's, of course, always now with their families. They're not driving, of course, because you know, they're 99, 100 years old, 98 maybe, and so we still get them, but we don't get them nearly like we used to.
All of my World War Two veteran volunteers have passed away. Every single one of them. We still have World War Two veterans, but they were not volunteers. We lost the last one in January.
Annette Laing: Now you've got people coming in, but they have no memory of World War Two. They have no one with them who remembers World War Two, and maybe they have stories. Do you find that they see it as less relevant to their lives?
Heather Thies: No, honestly, I think they're more interested. If they're here, they tend to be interested, but maybe it's a couple, or it's a family, and one person is super interested. The other person may not be quite as interested, but they are also expecting us to be a plane museum. And we are not. Typically the person who's not as interested, once they get here and see that we are more the story . . .
We can say this until we are blue in the face, and nobody ever believes this until they get here, but we are The Story of the 8th Air Force. We are not The Planes of the Eighth Air Force. You know, we have a couple of planes, but not many. And then they say, oh, and then they end up loving it. It's one of those things that people are still all very interested in, because almost everybody knows somebody who was in World War Two, whether it's a neighbor or relative, a family friend. And so many movies relate to WWII, even if they're not a World War Two movie. Even Star Wars. Captain America.
Annette Laing: I want to put a word in for Doctor Who. As a Brit, I have to, because the Daleks were definitely Nazis. No question about that.
Heather Thies: So that helps a lot. There's a lot of pop culture that relates to World War Two. So we can say we're going to tell you what really happened, you know, because obviously that's fictionalized.
Annette Laing: And it challenges your storytelling skills, keeps you fresh, to sort of deal with these generational changes
Heather Thies: And it just, you know, forces me to watch television or movies. Oh, and read a lot.
Annette Laing: So now, in this moment, and completely unexpectedly, we have war in Europe again. One of the first things I did on my Facebook page was put up a picture of British people taking shelter in the London Underground, the tube station, during the Blitz, and without comment. There was no need to comment. You're now reopened, aren't you?
Heather Thies: Yes. We reopened Memorial Day of 2020. We've been open because we're 90,000 square feet. If you can't socially distance in this Museum. . . . Well, I mean our ceilings are huge, you know, super high. So it was very easy. We had limitations. We had only so many people allowed and you had to wear a mask and, you know, we had sanitizer stations everywhere. But we reopened fairly quickly because we're so large.
Annette Laing: I should have thought of that because, and I would say to my viewers and my readers, this museum is massive. You can never judge a place from the freeway. Get off the freeway. Go have a look. They don't bite. They're not going to say "What are you doing here?" They're going to give you a warm welcome, they'll be delighted to see you, and they're not going to trap you, either, and make you stay. So, you know, it's always worth an investigation.
So the people who are coming in now, is Ukraine coming up in the conversation?
Heather Thies: Oh, definitely, definitely. Of course. And the parallels are . . . During World War Two, you know, the invasions. We always say we try to keep our politics to 1939 to 1945. So we try not to impart our opinions too much. But visitors always will make a comment, and the most common comment we get is, why didn't they learn from this? Why is this happening again? Because it's so similar.
Annette Laing: It is, something that historians are always going to say, history never repeats itself, because the context is different. I mean, the massive embargoes that are being put on [Russia] by the West would not happened in 1938, 1939. But yeah, sometimes it rhymes, someone said rather cleverly. So I can see that. Is [the Ukraine war] actually bringing more people through your doors, or is it too early to tell?
Heather Thies: It's too early to tell, because this is the time when tourism in Savannah really kicks in, because it's March, and the weather is getting better here. You know, this is St. Patrick's Day weekend. Rising gas prices haven't really affected us yet. It has been much busier in the last month. We had school kids galore and regular visitors galore and I said, wow, this is so exciting. And I forgot how overwhelming it is. So it's kind of hard to tell but yeah. Sometimes they want to talk about [the Ukraine War]. We try to do it in a way that isn't giving our own personal opinion, but obviously we can give a historical perspective, as to what it was like when Nazi Germany took over and conquered countries.
Annette Laing: I think most people just want to be listened to. They do want an audience. And in the end, the best thing they could do, honestly, is to to read the experts. You know, as I tell people, I am a historian, but I know nothing about Ukraine and I would not presume to write about it in Non-Boring History. And my strong suggestion to folks is that they seek out people who clearly have expertise in that area. So it does put a lot of us in a difficult spot. And yet at the same time you were giving people some context, which is also helpful. One last question: Who's the handsome chap behind you?
Heather Thies: This is honestly a stranger. It is our Eighth Air Force mystery. He was donated to us by somebody that he was given to, and they were not told who it was. And so we had him on exhibit for a while in our library, hoping somebody would recognize him. We have put him out on our social media, and we have yet to get him identified. We have tried very hard. So I put him in my office because in the last two years, my job switched from being in-person to being virtual, and I began educating people on social media. So I do these weekly videos, Target for Today, which are on Thursday afternoons. And so, he is now in my office, so that he is behind me during some of the videos. So, that, hopefully, he now reaches a wider audience and someday, we are hoping somebody recognizes him.
Annette Laing: And meanwhile, he's the portrait of The Unknown Airman. So, very cool. Heather Thies, I want to thank you once again for chatting with me today, and I look forward to getting back to Savannah one of these days. Hopefully, by next year. But meanwhile, thanks for all the work you do, and for coming along today.
Heather Thies: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
Finding Out More
If you want to know more about the Mighty 8th Air Force itself, but you’re far from Georgia, I warmly recommend academic historian Donald L. Miller’s very accessible (and long!) book: Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany.
Fun Fact: I met Don Miller when we were signing books together at the Mighty 8th, and he kindly bought Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When for his grandchildren, only to read it himself at the airport. He sent me a very nice note about it!
And GREAT NEWS: Don’s book is the basis for Masters of the Air, now in production as a drama mini-series produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, among others! This is great news for the museum, too! Find out more.
Visit The National Museum of The Mighty 8th Air Force in person, maybe as a stop between NY and Florida! Arrive between 11 and 2, M-F? You can have lunch in the pub, Southern food by Miss Sophie. Note the limited hours for the pub, which don’t include weekends. The Museum is open week-round.
There are numerous hotels and restaurants nearby in Pooler, so you don’t have to go into Savannah unless you want to. For lunch or an early supper, I especially recommend, not far across the freeway from the Mighty 8th, the original Pie Society in Pooler (they have a pub in Savannah, and a food truck, but the Pooler branch is my top recommendation). This is a British bakery and cafe, owned by the Wagstaff family from Staffordshire, serving savory pies, sweet treats, and, best of all the best fish and chips in the US (but CALL AHEAD FOR FRYING HOURS, which can vary). It took me forty years to find a company to get fish and chips right on this side of the pond! Indeed, they fry the chips in beef tallow, and that’s even hard to find in the UK. As ever, this isn’t a paid placement, nor have I taken any compensation for featuring the Pie Society. Tell them Non-Boring History sent you, and be prepared to explain what NBH is. :)