The bright blue stucco building stands out in a clearing in the southern Johnson County wilderness.
A small white cross adorns the peak of its roof. Paintings of Jesus, Mary and angels bring vivid color to the interior.
The place is still on a winter afternoon. Using your imagination, it’s easy to imagine Italian prisoners assembling scrap wood into an altar, lovingly painting on the plaster walls and building a raised platform separating the priest from worshipers.
Starting in March, you’ll no longer have to imagine it.
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The Indiana Historical Society’s newest exhibition focuses on a beloved and unusual piece of Johnson County history: the Chapel in the Meadow at Camp Atterbury. Curators and designers have recreated the tiny chapel as it was when it was built by Italian prisoners of war in 1943.
Actors portraying actual prisoners, as well as guards, a priest and other officials, will interact with visitors to help them learn more about Indiana’s role in holding POWs and how they immediately impacted local communities.
“You Are There 1943: Italian POWs at Atterbury” opens on March 4.
“What I want people to see in this is themselves — their family, their history,” said Dan Shockley, director of museum theater for the historical society. “I feel like the longing for home, which all of these guys had, will resonate with people. We are in a political climate where the ‘other’ is bad, whoever the other is. We were at a time in 1943 when we were looking at some people as the other. That wasn’t good.”
The You Are There exhibits are an attempt to bring the past into live-action reality. The idea was to take one of the 1.6 million photographs housed at the center and create an interactive display for guests to enter the time frame.
Past exhibitions have focused on Indiana’s home front efforts during World War II, the story of Indiana’s first constitution and Col. Eli Lilly’s first laboratory.
The Atterbury exhibit continues that tradition. Visitors will encounter Italian painters working on the artwork for the chapel. U.S. Army guards can offer a military perspective of what it was like at the time, and chaplain Fr. Maurice Imhoff, played by actor Mike Redmond, will provide the faith-based background.
“This is a talking space; it’s not one where you’re doing activities,” Shockley said. “But the conversations you can get into with these guys, I think with a lot of our guests, will get deeply personal.”
Camp Atterbury was founded in 1942 following the U.S. entrance into World War II. While its primary purpose was training soldiers for combat, the camp also included a internment camp for prisoners of war.
About 15,000 Italian and German prisoners were housed at the camp from 1943 to 1946.
Italians were the first group to come to Camp Atterbury after being captured during battle in North Africa in 1943. When they arrived, the prisoners asked camp leadership for a place to worship. The chapel was built in 1943 out of scrap materials. Prisoners painted beautiful works of art in the plaster inside the small structure, resulting in stunning frescoes of different religious scenes.
This is the moment in history that the You Are There exhibit pinpoints.
The photograph from the Indiana Historical Society’s archives shows three prisoners touching up aspects of the chapel’s interior as it nears completion. An officers stands over to watch.
“The challenge is that the existing chapel was redone in the 1980s, so it’s not exactly historically accurate. So we’re trying to go off the photograph,” said Sarah Anderson, exhibit designer for the Indiana Historical Society. “We’re trying to make the best guesses that we can based on the evidence that we have. It’s almost like being a history detective.”
Anderson and fellow exhibit designer Ryan Jones have worked extensively trying to recreate the photograph. Paintings have been laid out as they were in 1943, a faux marble altar was recreated as best as possible, and colors have been matched as closely as possible to what they would have been during World War II.
In a hallway outside the chapel space, visitors will find facts about the space and learn what life was like for POWs at Camp Atterbury.
Designers have created acrylic panels that give the effect of walking through an idyllic grassy field, only with barbed wire reinforcing the fact that it was a prison.
“This one is challenging, because we want to strike the right tone with the exhibit. While these were prisoners of war, not all were Mussolini’s men. They were forced to join the military. Not all of them were fascists,” Anderson said. “We didn’t want it to look too cheerful and upbeat, because this is a serious topic.”
A facade, similar to the one over the real Chapel in the Meadow, welcomes visitors into the exhibit space. People will walk through a smokescreen, where the photograph that inspired the scene will be projected on vapor.
Once inside, people can speak with the actors about different parts of life in the camp.
“It’s a really cool exhibit because it can go in so many directions. You can speak about the war, about art, about Catholicism, about the Geneva Convention,” said Jay Hemphill, a museum interpreter who portrays one of the POWs. “That’s what is so daunting at times, because you don’t know what will spark that conversation.”
Preparations for the exhibit took more than two years. To get ready, Shockley had to dig deep into the history of the camp and the lives of those who were there.
Shockley attended chapel reunions and celebrations held every year to meet survivors and families of them. He also worked with Johnson County residents who were alive during the camp’s use.
He was able to connect with some of the descendants of prisoners interred at Camp Atterbury, which helped paint a more robust picture of them as soldiers.
Zach Heider portrays Fioravante Pagnucco, one of the Italian POWs. Researchers were able to connect with Pagnucco’s son, who painted a more robust picture of his father.
“It’s really interesting. The POWs have a little bit less information, but he’s been helping with that. Mostly, I was just excited to be in an exhibit that had a good amount of photographic evidence and things like that,” Heider said.
The magic of the You Are There exhibits is the free-flowing interaction between actors and visitors. Guests can ask the historical interpreters anything, making conversation and inquiring about the situations being acted out.
That means the actors have to be ready for a wide variety of conversations.
“They have the hardest job of anybody, because for seven hours, they’re an Italian POW, or they’re an American officer, or they’re a priest. You have to believe it when you walk in,” Shockley said. “It is an amazing job that these guys do, but a stressful job that they do.”
The actors who are living out this scene will have four weeks of training to get ready for their roles. They’ve studied Italian, to be able to speak basic forms of the language. Through books and information compiled at the history center, they’ve learned as much as they can about life in the POW camps.
Hemphill, a museum interpreter at the historical society who has acted in You Are There exhibits in the past, will be portraying POW Adelso Miotto. The prisoner was a corporal major originally from Fiumicino, now a suburb of Rome but at the time a small fishing village.
From letters and photographs, Hemphill has been able to piece together Miotto’s life.
“It’s a puzzle. You’re trying to fill in the pieces of this puzzle, but doing it in a way that’s respectful and realistic,” he said. “While we’re treated well as POWs, I also don’t want to portray that everything is great and happy and wonderful, because while I’m here, Rome is being bombed. I’m worried about my family.”
In addition, the actors have heard firsthand about the importance of the chapel and how it was restored.
Col. Jorg Stachel was the commander at Camp Atterbury in the mid-1980s, when efforts to save the chapel resulted in a full restoration. After World War II, the Chapel in the Meadow fell into disrepair.
The Indiana National Guard spent $30,000 to renovate the historic structure. Now retired, Stachel has offered to give his perspective on the space.
“It’s a historic artifact that survived by fortune or faith, whatever you want to call it. It should have been destroyed when they dismantled the camp,” Stachel said. “(But) people would have been very upset if we would have torn it down.”
This is one of the more exciting You Are There exhibits that Shockley has worked on, for its unique history not only locally but its connection to the rest of the world.
He hopes that resonates with visitors.
“I’m not Catholic. I’m not Italian. I’m not military. And yet, there’s a magic to that location,” Shockley said. “It’s such a personal story — and yet such an Indiana, yet national, yet worldwide story.”
You Are There 1943: Italian POWs at Atterbury
What: An interactive living recreation of the construction of the Chapel in the Meadow, a small worship space built at Camp Atterbury by Italian prisoners of war in 1943.
Where: Indiana History Center, 450 W. Ohio St., Indianapolis
When: March 4 through Aug. 11, 2018
Cost: Included with admission to the center’s Indiana Experience, $9 for adults, $8 for seniors 60 and older, $7 for children ages 5 to 17, and free for children under 5.
Hours: Center hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.