SOUTH KINGSTOWN —Between 1939 and 1945, two opposing global military forces changed everything in the lives of virtually everyone. What is our history was our ancestors’ reality. But while the youngest generations can read about that era nearly eight decades ago, can they really understand the fear, the determination, the sacrifice made by their grandparents or great-grandparents? Local documentary film-maker Tim Gray is going to make sure they can.
The World War II Foundation Global Education Center has recently opened in South Kingstown. Complete with a theater that seats 35, a library containing over 500 volumes of WWII history, computers downloaded with 1930s and 1940s era news reels and personal interviews with veterans, and displays with one-of-a-kind artifacts, the center fills a crucial need in Rhode Island’s military history education.
Gray has spent a good portion of his life producing award-winning WWII documentaries, through his WWII Foundation, which are donated to American Public Television for airing on PBS affiliates around the globe. The 22 films have garnered five Emmy awards and remain in the top five of the most requested programs on PBS. Now, visitors to the center can experience a multi-media approach to what our country was like during the second World War.
“The whole goal is to bring that time period to life,” said Gray during a recent interview. “This is the only center in the country where each display is based on a specific film. For instance, if a person is interested in D-Day, they can watch the film about D-Day and then go see the D-Day display.”
Displays include everything from WWII helmets and radios, to maps and a prisoner’s uniform from the Auschwitz concentration camp. While it’s one thing to read about such items, its another to stand there and see them. “You show someone a helmet with a bullet hole in it and you know that the family got a Western Union telegram that ruined their lives,” Gray said. “The films are brought to life through these artifacts.”
Having devoted a lot of time and energy to collecting and preserving WWII artifacts and memorabilia, Gray realized long ago that, as it accumulated, he was running out of space in which to store it. About five years ago, he began thinking about opening a museum which would serve to bring his WWII Foundation a physical presence. “Then one day I was just driving down Main Street and I saw there was a space in Kenyon Mill open. It was the right place and the right time. We renovated it and turned it into this amazing space in a historical building,” he said.
With supporters and donors such as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and the Rhode Island Foundation, Gray hopes that teachers will see the great benefit in adding a class trip to the center to history curricula. “We want them to know what it was like for the soldiers who were fighting, the teenagers on the home-front, and the women back home working as Rosie the Riveters,” he said. “What we hope they will take away from it is a better understanding of the generation who actually lived through it.”
The center is currently opened by appointment only. General admission is $15 for adults. Children are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Special rates apply for non-educational groups of 10 or more people. There is no cost for veterans or school groups.
“Students who come on field trips will get to pick out a free WWII Foundation DVD of any film they want, when they leave, based on their interest,” Gray said. “They can also check books out of our library.”
Appointments to visit the center can be made now at www.wwiifoundation.org/center.
No video, photography, food or drink is allowed inside the center, located at 344 Main Street in South Kingstown.