Center on Winston Churchill to be created in D.C.
Share with others:
WASHINGTON --Christopher Sterling has made numerous trips to the United Kingdom to visit Sir Winston Churchill's former home in Kent, the Cabinet War Rooms in London and Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, where British code breakers deciphered Nazi secrets during World War II.
Soon, Mr. Sterling, a George Washington University dean and former president of the Washington Society for Churchill, won't have to travel 3,600 miles to study the mercurial prime minister whose wartime leadership helped save Western civilization from the Nazis.
That's because the Chicago-based Churchill Centre and George Washington University are teaming up to create the only major Churchill facility in the United States outside the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Mo., site of the prime minister's famous 1946 Iron Curtain speech.
The National Churchill Library and Center will be created on the GWU campus, just blocks from the White House, in the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library. It is expected to be both a museum for the general public and a major academic research center on par with similar facilities in the United Kingdom. The center will make source material available to academic researchers -- and celebrate the achievements and personal history of Churchill, son of a British statesman and an American socialite.
"Winston Churchill is a part of the story of Britain but also the story of the world and of America becoming a great world power. He's as much a part of American history as British," said Churchill Centre director Lee Pollock.
Churchill, a multifacted man with diverse talents, kept odd hours and disliked wasting time. Expecting to die early, as his father did, Churchill set out to accomplish as much as possible in the early part of his life.
Although he lived to be 90 and accomplished much more than most, his sense of urgency never left him, said biographer Paul Reid, who recently completed the third and final volume of "The Last Lion," the important Churchill biography started by the late William Manchester. Churchill transformed himself from a young man in a hurry to an old man in a hurry, Mr. Reid said in a recent telephone interview.
"He almost worked two days of work into one day. He lived for the moment because tomorrow may not come, and in London at war in 1940, that was literally the truth," Mr. Reid said.
A fighter for civilization
His efforts made him more than an influential world leader. He was a historian, artist, biographer, war correspondent, inspirational public speaker, novelist, Nobel Prize winner, father, aristocrat, amateur bricklayer, British Army officer, oil company lobbyist, member of Parliament, cabinet secretary, chancellor and minister of munitions.
"Churchill obviously is recognized as the great iconic war leader and known most famously for that, but a lot of people are interested in not only that but the whole dimension of his life," Mr. Pollock said.
That includes pronouncements history would come to view as wrongheaded. For example, he proposed forced labor for "mental defectives" and advocated for sterilization of the "feeble-minded" -- people he saw as a threat to virility.
The flaws aren't lost even on those who both study and adore Mr. Churchill.
"He could be rude, he drank too much, and he didn't exercise, but at the end of the day, I'm back to this: He saved Western civilization. Churchill fought for Western civilization -- for the literature, the art, the ideas, the mercy and forgiveness," Mr. Reid said. "He fought for the right for people to worship as they pleased and to speak as they pleased, for the freedom of education and intellectual pursuit and for everything we hold dear."
Without the Churchill-led British intervention, Adolph Hitler would have been unstoppable, he said.
Washington scholars and tourists soon will have a place to learn about the late prime minister's work ethic, his prolific landscape painting, his troublesome speech impediment and his propensity for wearing "siren suits" or zippered rompers that, though lacking in style, made for quick dressing.
The siren suits and ubiquitous hats will draw tourists who like to see objects from famous people's everyday lives, but it's the documents that will interest serious scholars, Mr. Reid said.
"A scholar wants to examine the record; tourists aren't going to do that," he said. "Artifacts are important, but you go to a library to study, not to look at old shoes."
The National Churchill Library and Center will offer both, including some documents and artifacts that have yet to surface.
The hope is that the creation of the Washington facility will inspire American Churchill devotees -- the "Churchillians" -- to contribute or loan letters and documents they've held in private collections for decades but have been unwilling to send to overseas curators. They might be more willing to contribute them to Washington than London, Mr. Reid said.
"You have no idea who has what. Who knows if someone's estate might leave valuable Churchill letters?" he asked.
Some items are already beginning to materialize, Mr. Pollock said.
"We're getting significant donations from members who say, 'It's time for my collection to have a great home somewhere it can be accessible to lots and lots of people.' "
The center expects to display Churchill writings, photographs, memorabilia, biographies and original documents useful to scholars of law, international affairs, history, public policy and more.
The center could draw prominent Churchill scholars to George Washington University.
"Right now there's no particular reason for them to come here, but there will be," Mr. Sterling said.
The Churchill Library and Center will include an exhibition gallery, a reading room, space for lectures and receptions, and computer terminals that will provide electronic access to collections of the Churchill Archives Centre.
Churchill scholars and enthusiasts who want to view primary source documents currently have to travel to Britain to find much of what they're looking for, said Mr. Sterling, professor of media and public affairs.
"Churchill is a serious hobby with me, not my profession," he said. Still, he's made several trips overseas to pursue his interest.
Now he'll be able to pursue his passion without leaving GWU's neighborhood of Foggy Bottom.
Lectures and programming will begin in the fall, and the physical space -- 6,000 renovated square feet on the first floor of the library -- is slated to open in 2015.
Between now and then, the Churchill Centre is campaigning to raise $8 million for its share of the renovations, to create exhibits for visitors and to create endowments to provide salaries for a curator and a Churchill scholar in the department of history.
The center hasn't revealed how much has been collected so far, but Mr. Pollock, the executive director, said fundraising efforts are on track.
Churchill descendants are pleased to have the facility built in the center of American government.
"My great-grandfather rejoiced in his American ancestry. He visited the United States often, had many close American friends and greatly admired the dynamism and energy of what he called the 'Great Republic,' " Randolph Churchill said.
He said the center will draw attention to the example his great-grandfather set through his courage and determination at a time the survival of democracy was in doubt. That leadership remains an example to political leaders everywhere, and it's something that the new library and center will highlight for visitors.
"The relationship between America and Britain remains unique among major nations in world history and is deeply rooted in our shared language, culture and experience and -- most importantly for the fate of the world -- in our alliances during two world wars. Interest in Winston Churchill in America has never been higher across the political spectrum and in all branches of government," Randolph Churchill said.
The proximity of the center to the White House is especially appropriate and welcome because Winston Churchill probably spent more time as a guest of the White House than almost any other world leader, he said.
"I can easily see him taking a stroll with cigar in hand to the corner of 22nd and H to see the new exhibition place himself," he said.
First Published January 15, 2013 12:00 am