Last week I was asked, how can dioramas help us understand war in general? It’s a question I’ve never considered, and the answer I found took me a little by surprise. A diorama is such a simple thing, and yet its meaning and purpose is so much richer than I ever thought. Here is my answer.
It depends on the focus of the diorama. Typically, dioramas focus on the overall battle or story of the given subject. I wonder if ours are unique in that we want to tell the stories of individuals. All of our larger dioramas have information panels with stories of individuals or units, as well as the general overview of what you’re looking at.
As I write the stories to put on display, I am continually struck by how much we can relate to the people back then. At the Angle, there was Capt. Michael Spessard, who had just seen his son fall mortally wounded on the way across the fields. I think every parent can relate to his feelings as he reaches the Union position at the stone wall. Is it any surprise to a father or mother reading his story, that he will refuse to surrender, and even after his would-be captors wrestle his sword away from him, that he will chase them away, pelting them with rocks? Or the story of Sgt. Andrew Tozier—growing up with an abusive alcoholic father, but going on to earn the Medal of Honor on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. How many kids nowadays need to hear his story and learn that their character–not their past–dictates their future and their potential?
We live in a culture that focuses on death and pain, ghosts and gore. Studying war, you find yourself in a strange clash between destruction and glory, pain and valor, death and salvation. For all the stories of pools of blood, you can find stories of rescue and relief. Col. Oates losing his brother on Little Round Top, Spessard losing his son, Capt. Cocke losing sight of his brother at the Angle. And then you have Pvt. Grine venturing between the firing lines to bring wounded enemy soldiers back to safety and the field hospitals, you have the story of John Chamberlain’s relief at finding his brothers Tom and Lawrence safe after their hard fighting leading the 20th Maine.
In the paintings of the great masters, the most striking ones are dark with a ray of light piercing through. I think that is why we keep coming back to study war—to search for those stories of light, of man at his best. It’s not the stories of destruction; it’s the stories of standing firm, of doing what is right, of helping others, of determination, desperation, and mercy. And if you let those stories sink in, you can’t help but think, “Would I do that? Could I do that?” If our dioramas can interest people in those stories and inspire them to be the type of person who stands firm, who does the right thing, who thinks of the people around them and not of themselves when trouble comes, I think our cats will have done their work.