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Immersed in history: Iowa City man brings historic events to life

Will Thomson has dozens of exhibits on display throughout the state

Will Thomson, owner of Armadillo Arts, points to the equipment inside the B-17 interactive exhibit he is building for the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Paragon Cabinet Co in Iowa City on Wednesday, May. 9, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Will Thomson, owner of Armadillo Arts, points to the equipment inside the B-17 interactive exhibit he is building for the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Paragon Cabinet Co in Iowa City on Wednesday, May. 9, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Step into Will Thomson’s interpretation of a B-17 bomber and feel, see and hear what it might have been like to be in the radio control room during World War II.

A radio receiver and transmitter sit at the communications station. An interplane jack box, an oxygen regulator and an oxygen pressure indicator are mounted. An old fire extinguisher hangs by the opening to the bomb bay. A touch screen will hang from the wall where users can access oral histories from B-17 veterans. The wiring, replication of aluminum overcast, and fine details like a picture of a mom or girlfriend or maybe hand-rolled cigarettes on the floor add to the authenticity.

“This is his living quarters for eight or 10 hours at a stretch,” said Thomson, 65, of Iowa City. “We want it to feel like someone was living there.”

You may not know Thomson, but if you’ve traveled Iowa you’ve probably learned something from him.

Thomson designs and builds exhibits for museums, historical societies, conservation centers, and other organizations mainly in Iowa.

Dozens of his productions are on display around the state, such as at the Rodeo Museum in Sydney, Harden County Nature Center, and the Swedish American Museum in Swedesburg.

He studies the history of the subject — in the case of the B-17 explored it personally — and sources artifacts from the period online or from restorers, he said.

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“You are trying to immerse yourself in what you’re translating,” Thomson said. “I am trying to give the visitor as deep an understanding as I have.”

He is working on the B-17 at Paragon Cabinet Co. workshop, which belongs to his business partner, Dan Bohlke. Smaller items he works on from home.

The B-17 radio quarters are destined for the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge in Johnston, which tells the story of Iowans’ military service. Thomson has been working to update the exhibits from the frontier to the Gulf War and war on terror in the Gold Star Museum since 2011.

Thomson, who is from North Carolina, relocated to Iowa in 1982 for a position as exhibit design artist at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History and an instructor in the museum studies program. There he created exhibits in Iowa Hall, Hall of Birds and Mammal Hall, which are located in Macbride Hall on the campus Pentacrest.

He left the museum in 1994 to start his own business focused on Iowa history. He calls it Armadillo Arts.

“Regardless of how sophisticated things become because of technology, it’s still about things — things we put on display and interpret,” Thomson said. “What we do is show the plight of ordinary humans in the history of the world through the fragments they leave behind.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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