Touching History at the Military History Society of Rochester

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I have logged many, many hours over the years visiting battlefields, historical homes, living heritage sites, reenactments, roadside markers and all sorts of art, history and military museums. Near the top of these experiences was a full day I spent at the Imperial War Museum a few years back while working in London for over a month. With over two million visitors a year and some 11 millions artifacts, the IWM is hard to beat for immersing yourself in the history of warfare.

This past week I had a very different, yet truly remarkable experience in my first visit to the Military History Society of Rochester. Located up a flight of stairs in a warehouse inhabited by various artist galleries and studios, the MHSR occupies roughly 2000 square feet of space packed with all manner of historical artifacts focused on telling the story of the US military through the local lens of Rochester, NY.

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A timeline of US long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War at the MHSR

Founded several years ago by Chuck Baylis as the American Civil War Artillery Association, the group’s mission has since grown beyond his original collection of Civil War artifacts to encompass American wars from the Revolution to the present. The first room still focuses on the Civil War including detailed displays on artillery, uniforms and the 140th New York Volunteer Regiment formed in Rochester in 1862. A timeline of American long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War covers an entire wall.

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A timeline of military uniforms from the American War of Independence through the present at the MHSR

In the rear space of the museum, the focus swings to 20th-century with displays on World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and present day wars. Uniforms, guns, swords, equipment hang from the walls, rest on shelves and lay slung over mannequins. Scale model airplanes hang from the ceiling, model vehicles rest on the floors and cases and a D-Day diorama sits nearby. Throughout the museum are some 2000 books as well as countless other letters, maps, photos, schematics, deck plans, prints, posters and other ephemera for perusal or research.

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 A US .50 caliber machine gun at the MHSR

Baylis has been joined by a number of passionate volunteers who can be found at the museum during its operating hours on Thursdays, Fridays and some Saturdays. Civil War reenactor, historian and wargamer Mike Vasile (co-author of the excellent Arena Games: Gladiatorial Combat rules) is responsible for many of the scale dioramas throughout the museum. Scale ship modeller Timothy Igoe of Historia Militaris Shipways has contributed several naval models to the collection and is currently undertaking a build of the USS Rochester (CA-2) for the museum. Retired Social Studies teacher Orton Begner rounds out the group with a deep knowledge of every object on hand.

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A US M1919 Browning machine gun at the MHSR

The one-to-one interaction with the MHSR’s members and the collection is what sets the museum apart from any other I’ve every visited. Everything has been well labeled, organized and put on display but hardly anything in the museum sits behind glass. Care to hold the various types of artillery rounds used in the Civil War? Want to feel the heft of a WWII era Thompson submachine gun or M-1 rifle? Would you like to take a look inside a pack carried by an American GI on D-Day? Want to lie down with a German MG-42? Ever wanted to hold a Japanese officer’s sword or 1913 “Patton Saber”? Just about everything in the museum, with the proper care, respect and assistance from one of the staff, can be touched, offering an incredibly rare opportunity to physically connect with past.

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 A German MG-42 and StG 44 at the MHSR

The mission to bring history alive beyond the walls of the museum also occurs with the exhibits members of the group bring to school groups and veteran events in the Rochester area. With its focus on celebrating the men and women of Western New York’s service in every branch of the military past and present, the museum is serving a unique and human mission of connecting today’s generations to a long tradition military service.

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My son gets some hands-on time with a Thompson submachine gun at the MHSR

In all my years of interest in history and military heritage, I have yet to find a museum as alive as the experience found at the Military History Society of Rochester. As a wargamer, the opportunity to see and handle so many objects up close is unparalleled. My time spent at the museum on my first visit was brief, but meeting the guys and seeing the collection at the museum will definitely bring me back my next time in Rochester.

Interview with Chuck Baylis of the MHSR

The Military History Society of Rochester is located in the Anderson Arts Building at 250 North Goodman Street on the second floor. Admission is free.

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Downloading: A Century of British Pathé Newsreels

pathe_6da6dceb176b5785e86615b8619ffb28With today’s constant digital feed of news both major and minor, it’s fascinating to think back to an era where newsreels supplied much of the world’s news in motion. In an era still ruled by newspapers and radio, newsreel series from The March of Time, Fox Movietone News, Universal Newsreels, British Pathé and others brought events from far corners of the world to local movie house audiences. Presenting news in motion with dramatic music, voiceovers, selective edits and even reenactments, newsreels provided important foundations for how people would eventually consume video news via television in the latter half of the 20th-century and online in the 21st-century.

British Pathé announced this past week the availability of much of its archive of some 85,000+ HD videos available via YouTube. Some videos appear in their original full newsreels including iconic opening titles, graphics and voiceovers. The A Day That Shook The World series offers more modern edits of pivotal world events from a UK perspective. Other videos are mere snippets, often presented without sound or much context.

Topics covered in the British Pathé newsreels range from celebrity, politics and British royalty to industry, disasters, contemporary slices of life and news from the British Empire worldwide. From the historical to the humorous to the downright bizarre, the newsreel collection paints a wide picture of nearly 100 years of life on Earth.

For people with an interest in armed conflict of the 20th-century, the British Pathé collection has some gems. The Second Boer War gets a little coverage in some amazing footage from the years around the turn of the 20th-century. World War I is covered in major battles such as the Somme and Verdun, but also short features on new technologies like tanks and news from the home front.

Second Boer War

World War I

World War II coincided with the peak era of newsreels, and the British Pathé collection provides an amazing document. There are full newsreels covering the Battle of Dunkirk and the Battle of Arnhem from Operation Market Garden. The brutal siege and liberation of Stalingrad gets a lot of coverage, as does the major battles of the Pacific like Iwo Jima. Nail-biting aerial and naval combat from throughout the war is also documented in some stellar footage.

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There’s a ton of additional military-themed footage in the post-WWII era covering the Cold War events, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Six Day War and the Falkands War. Seeing history come alive in video vignettes from British Pathé, often with more than a glint of heroic propagandist presentation, is just another opportunity to view history as contemporary audiences once saw it. With more and more archives enabling wide distribution of their photo, film, map and document collections online, armchair historians everywhere can tap into a wealth of information painting an ever-widening picture of our past.