The National Churchill Museum

Friday February 28, 2014

By Explore St. Louis Guest

On a beautiful college campus in a small mid-Missouri town a short drive from St. Louis lies what may well be Missouri’s most fascinating hidden gem.

Some of the best travel memories spring from unexpected discoveries. That’s the experience some visitors have when they find the National Churchill Museum, on the Westminster College campus in Fulton.

Who expects to find an exquisite 17th century English church housing a moving tribute to Winston Churchill, the revered prime minister of England during World War II, in a small mid-Missouri town?  It was Churchill who gave us--in a speech at the college in 1946--the phrase “Iron Curtain,” a term that symbolizes the Soviet Union’s post-war effort to segregate itself from the West.

The memorial conveys a vivid history lesson of what happened in Europe before and during the war and how it set the scene for events that followed impacting our world today.

Visitors need not fear an eye-glazing, mind numbing museum display there, though. Redesigned several years ago for the 60th anniversary of Churchill’s campus visit, the exhibits beckon visitors with a lively, interactive experience as they learn about Churchill, his life, World War I, the rise of the Nazis in Germany, World War II and its aftermath.

Museum visitors can now:

•   Relive the sights and sounds of living in a trench on the Western Front during World War I.

•   Experience the effects of a London air raid at the height of "The Blitz" via a dazzling light and sound show.

•   Watch "Churchill's Finest Hour," a film narrated by Missouri’s own Walter Cronkite, television newscaster.

•   Touch Churchill artifacts and read his personal correspondence.

•   Witness the Nazi propaganda machine.

•   Practice their spy skills by deciphering World War II secret codes or finding clues from secrets locked in a Cold War briefcase.

“It's really a wonderful visitor experience,” said Rob Havers, executive director of the museum. He is a former professor of war studies at England’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

“It's a great day out but it also is a tremendous educational experience because it does immerse you in the history of the late 19th century and early 20th century.” Churchill’s actions impacts our lives even today, Havers said. The creation of the modern  state of Iraq is a good example of how events Churchill was involved in “have contemporary resonance,” he added.

The story of how Churchill came to give his monumental speech at a small college campus in mid-Missouri is an interesting one. He had lost re-election as prime minister in 1945 but still wanted to warn the world about the intentions of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, Westminster College was looking for a fitting figure to deliver the John Findley Green Lecture, a series established in 1936 “to promote understanding of economic and social problems of international concern.”

Churchill would fit the bill but how to get him to come to this somewhat out-of-the-way place?

The college asked a Westminster alum, an aide to President Harry S Truman, to appeal to Churchill to come, Havers said.

At the bottom of the invitation sent to Churchill, Truman hand-wrote this personal note: “This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I'll introduce you. Truman.”
Knowing he’d have a wide audience for his speech with Truman introducing him was enough to convince Churchill to accept.

The speech indeed drew wide coverage. In fact, with its “Iron Curtain” reference, some experts say Churchill’s speech marked the beginning of the Cold War.

But how did the stately St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury Church, a beautiful 17th century English church meticulously restored and built on the foundations of the original Christopher Wren structure, come to house the museum?

In the early 1960s, the college was looking for a fitting way to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Churchill’s speech. As a committee met to discuss ideas, British architect Patrick Horsborough cited a Life magazine story on Wren churches which had been badly damaged in the war but nearly 20 years later hadn’t been repaired. The ambitious idea of bringing the ruins of a Wren church to Fulton and reconstructing it as a memorial to Churchill gained approval.

The church has a long history. The original structure, dating to the 12th century, was destroyed by the Great London Fire in 1666. It was rebuilt with a design by Wren, famed English architect, and destroyed again in the London Blitz during World War II.

In 1965 workers began dissembling and labeling each of the 7,000 stones that comprised what remained of the church. In the trip thousands of miles across sea and land, handlers scrambled the pieces leading the Times of London to call the project “perhaps the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the history of architecture."

Herculean tasks that it was, workers ultimately unscrambled the pieces and put them back together but the structure still had no roof or interior. So an international team of craftsmen overseen by an architect from the United Kingdom was assembled to reconstruct the church as it was before the bombing. It was dedicated on May 7, 1969 and serves as the college chapel and a memorial to Churchill and his 1946 speech at the college.

It’s the beautiful Wren church visitors first see when they approach the museum. They also see several Churchill sculptures and a bas relief of “the moment he drops his hands and utters that immortal phrase, ‘An iron curtain has descended across the continent,’” Havers said.

In 1990 a most unusual sculpture joined the memorial. Edwina Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter, created “Breakthrough,” a massive work from eight sections of the original Berlin Wall to commemorate the first anniversary of the Wall’s fall.

“What she did was cut out silhouettes of a man and  woman so that people can walk through the Wall and thereby symbolically achieve their own breakthrough,” Havers said. It was “very appropriate” that the work of art be installed within sight of the gymnasium where Churchill predicted the Cold War that dominated the world’s political scene for so many decades, he said.

President Ronald Reagan dedicated the 11-foot-high by 32-foot-long structure as the centerpiece of the Cold War Memorial on the campus one year after the November 9, 1989 fall of Wall.

Though some are surprised to see a memorial to Churchill, a 17th century Wren church and a piece of the Berlin Wall in the center of Missouri, they tend to be amazed by the experience.

“Nobody leaves disappointed,” Havers said.

If you go:

The National Churchill Museum is located on the campus of Westminster College, in Fulton, MO, an hour and a half west of St. Louis.

The museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Admission is $7.50, adults; $6.50 for those 65 and older, AARP and AAA members and active military; $5.50 for youth 12-18 and college students; $4.50, children 6-11; free, children 5 and under; museum members, Westminster College students and those from Callaway County Schools

Special event: The Museum is sponsoring a “Churchill Weekend” March 1-2, 2014. Paul Reed, author of the third volume of William Manchester’s trilogy about Winston Churchill, will deliver the annual Kemper Lecture, and the great-grandchildren of Churchill will be in attendance. The lecture, at 2 p.m., Sunday in the Church of St. Mary, is free and open to the public. For information about a dinner on March 1 and brunch on March 2, visit the museum’s website or check out the Churchill Weekend brochure.

Guest Blogger Kathie Sutin a freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri contributed this blog.