Nancy Groce of the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is an ethnomusicologist. What this means in the museum world is that Groce studies popular and folk music as it illuminates a particular culture. What this means for the rest of us heading downtown this Memorial Day weekend is that the National World War II Reunion -- four days of educational presentations, activities and displays surrounding the dedication of the World War II Memorial -- will have more than a little swing in its step.
"I think we're going to be swamped with dancers," Groce says. "We've sent out messages to the swing-dancing community here -- they're welcome to come, we want them to come and they'll add to the atmosphere -- but we want everyone to remember that it's first of all a commemoration."
Groce is the reunion's music curator, one of many at the Smithsonian Institution working in partnership with the American Battle Monuments Commission to make the dedication of the National World War II Memorial unlike any other in Washington's history. Most identify the folklife center with the annual summer Folklife Festival on the Mall, including 2002's enormously popular Silk Road festival, but Groce and her colleagues are used to putting on other large-scale events: They've run five of the seven presidential inaugurations since 1977 (save Bush I and Bush II), the Smithsonian's 150th birthday bash in 1996 and the millennium celebration in 1999.
What the people at the folklife center have never tried before, though, is to capture the culture of a war. Understandably, they're being careful with their terminology. They are staying away from certain well-traveled phrases -- "the good war" and the "greatest generation" -- and though it's their usual stock in trade, they are especially careful not to call the reunion a "festival."
"We really were searching for the right word," says Richard Kurin, director of the folklife center. "We came up with the idea of a 'reunion' because we envisioned a lot of people across generations and within generations coming and connecting -- connecting with their feelings about the war, the era and about the country. But you could also call it a celebration if you go back to the roots of that word, where there is an aspect of transformation and recognition, whether in the life cycle of an individual or a society. In that sense, we're here recognizing a whole generation."
"What distinguishes World War II is the way it dominated everything and everyone, just a total involvement in ways we haven't seen since," adds Jim Deutsch, head curator of the "Tribute to a Generation: National World War II Reunion," a World War II scholar and son of a war veteran. "We're going to be paying tribute, celebrating, honoring not only the people who fought, but an entire era. We're trying to strike a balance -- we are hoping people can have a good time, but it's really first and foremost an opportunity for reflection."
To give visitors some experience of the awesome scope of World War II, the reunion has spread two stages and six tents between Third and Seventh streets on the Mall, filling them with exhibits, musicians, artifacts and speakers that highlight the course and consequences of the war and the drastic changes in life on the home front at the same time. By providing this kind of saturation, the folklife center hopes to present a vivid and kaleidoscopic picture of a time that sometimes seems to have fully retreated into the realm of gauzy nostalgia.
"I'm not a psychologist, so I don't know if this falls under the category of a defense mechanism, but it's clear that we selectively pick moments out of our memory and highlight those," Deutsch says. "We recognize there is a nostalgia for the '40s, and we're not rejecting that. There are fond memories -- for young people it was a very exciting time, and the war did bring Americans together."
Deutsch explains that the reunion will evoke the era through imagery -- a visual aesthetic modeled after war-bond and recruitment posters -- and by re-creating many of the iconic images of the time: ditty bags, victory gardens, a "Capitol Canteen," and displays featuring tanks, Jeeps and amphibious vehicles. A family activities tent will give children a dose of life in the early '40s by teaching them how to identify aircraft silhouettes and how to break Japanese code taken straight from the Battle of Midway. And, of course, there will be music.
"A nice term ethnomusicologists use is 'soundscape,' " Groce says. "It's like a heard version of a landscape, a term to keep in mind when you're planning an event like this. How do you create a soundscape of World War II?"
Her answer: Enlist as many still-existing war-era acts as possible, no matter how different their personnel today -- the Ink Spots and the Artie Shaw Orchestra, most recognizably -- and throw in a few swing bands, some hula music, a blues group and singers from the Ho Chunk American Indian nation. Finally, don't play only patriotic war songs.
"If you look at the hits of the '40s, it was very rarely 'Let's go out and tromp the enemy,' " Groce says. "There were songs like 'Round and Round Hitler's Grave,' . . . yes, but more typical hits were 'Sentimental Journey' or 'Moonlight in Vermont' or 'Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree.' People just didn't want to hear about the war all the time, and these songs would give them 21/2 minutes away."
With so much to distract visitors at the reunion -- it might even be fair to say with so much fun to be had -- organizers made a "very early decision," according to Kurin, to let the experience of the war itself come out primarily through talk. "When we first started planning," Kurin says, "I envisioned something kind of like 'kitchen-table conversations.' I had a picture in my head of hundreds of kitchen tables at the Mall, each populated with a veteran of the war -- you could just sit down and ask questions, and when your 20 minutes was up you'd move to the next kitchen table."
That informal, back-fence spirit is still present in a series of conversational discussions pairing the famous -- including actors Ernest Borgnine and Jack Palance; baseball players Bob Feller, Monte Irvin and Buck O'Neil; and journalists Allen Neuharth and Mike Wallace -- and the less widely known, including Japanese Americans incarcerated in mainland internment camps during the war and those who served in the Army's highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Other ongoing "conversations" will happen in the Reunion Hall tent, where veterans and home-front workers can leave messages for their unit mates or other acquaintances, and a tent featuring the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, which will offer advice on preserving wartime keepsakes and memorabilia and include a variety of speakers, such as Navajo Code Talkers, former prisoners of war and Venus Ramey, Miss America 1944, the last winner from the District.
At the center of all this activity, of course, is the World War II Memorial. While the reunion will pause on Saturday until 4 to make way for the dedication ceremonies, it will not ignore the sometimes charged debate that surrounded the memorial's design process, nor the way the memorial will forever change the face and experience of the Mall.
"We're focusing back on the monument itself, the reason this tribute is happening," says Jill Connors-Joyner of Washington's City Museum, who, along with fellow curator Laura Schiavo, is providing historical context for the memorial dedication through an exhibit called "Making History on the Mall" in the "Building the Memorial" tent. The exhibit looks at the history of Pierre L'Enfant's Mall and compares older memorials to the current one, discussing the controversies over the design of the Washington Monument, the location of the Lincoln Memorial and the choice of neoclassicism for the Jefferson Memorial.
"We're going back in time and talking about how this memorial and others came about," Connors-Joyner says. "Any given memorial is not inevitable. We're going to show how some of the debates that happen do happen. They're natural." Another section of the "Making History" exhibit will feature talks by the creators of the new memorial, including sculptors, stonemasons, engineers and World War II Memorial designer Friedrich St. Florian. (After the reunion's finale Sunday night, the exhibit moves to the City Museum, where it will be expanded for opening on June 12.)
For all the historical context, conversation, entertainment and education provided by the Smithsonian, though, a reunion is still a reunion, built out of one personal connection at a time.
"We're looking at the entire World War II era as a culturally defining moment," Kurin says, "but this was still our basic thought: Wouldn't it be great if veterans and others of that generation just happened upon people they used to know? It's hard to orchestrate that kind of thing, but we wanted to provide a context, the preparation and staging where it can happen."
Scott Berg is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Weekend.