Flowers in the Attic 

From family heirloom to library exhibit, baby boomers find history preserved in the proverbial shoeboxes.

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Elena Bergman Siddall's enchantment with the strikingly elegant, ramrod-straight figure in an old photograph began when she was a girl. The portrait was of a handsome man in a naval uniform with a piercing gaze. He was Sergei Pechatkin, the maternal grandfather that Siddall, 65, had never known. In 1915, during World War I, he was killed at sea.

For many years Siddall's fascination with her Russian grandfather and his era has led her to collect World War I memorabilia. "I've always purchased things at yard sales and flea markets," she says, quick to dispel any notion that her collection is gourmet. But she's assembled an eclectic assortment of old photos, postcards, military equipment, collections of poetry and history books.

A few years ago, however, Siddall — a social worker, mother of two and grandmother of three — was downsizing and moving to a smaller house. She faced a dilemma that confronts thousands of Americans within baby-boomer age range: What to do with the accumulation of an interesting and prosperous lifetime? How to fight the gravitational pull of stuffed drawers and clogged basements and attics?

Siddall had an additional challenge: What to do about those boxloads of all things World War I?

She had an epiphany. Why not mount a World War I exhibit, she thought, and share her historical treasures with others, particularly students? After all, museums, cultural organizations and libraries were strapped for program funding. And she could offer a unique look at World War I, a subject far off the radar of most Americans. Siddall's was a "high touch" idea of sharing her artifacts in a world that has become dizzyingly "high tech" and "virtual."

So in the best Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney spirit of "Daddy says we can have the barn," Siddall approached the Richmond Public Library, applied for modest grants from funding sources she knew and worked with the library staff to open a large exhibition. It opened in November and continues through Jan 2. Other sources, such as the Virginia Historical Society, Fort Pickett, and the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Library, and individuals loaned additional objects.

"The exhibit is not just about battles," Siddall says. "It engages in a different way. It helps viewers and students understand what the war was about, how empires ended with the war, and how so many problems were created that are unresolved to this day."

As the exhibition developed, Siddall had another revelation: If she could curate an exhibition, why couldn't others? "As well-heeled boomers are clearing out their basements and attics, they could put together collections of their things," she says. "Two or three of them could get together on a topic. Before they call eBay, they could put together an exhibit. There's the possibility for a whole new movement."

Suzanne Savery, director of collections and interpretation at the Valentine Richmond History Center, wasn't involved in the exhibition, but says Siddall might be onto something. "It's wonderful when a collector looks at the breadth of a subject from all sides," Savery says. "You need all those parts to tell a story. She is taking the perspective of a historian.

"People tend to think that large objects like uniforms or weapons are only what is important. They don't always see that many other things, the more common everyday supplies — the things they took with them — are equally important."

Savery, who says she happened to purchase a World War I pillow for the history-center collection this fall, has seen collecting interest developing in more recent wars such as Korea and Vietnam. "Usually it's 50-plus years after an event before people begin asking what to do with their things," Savery says. "It's usually the next generation looking back and wondering what to do with [the accumulation of] their lives or their parents' lives. It's important for all communities to protect their heritages."

Siddall says she plans to continue collecting World War I objects and envisions putting together in 12 years another exhibition marking the centennial of the war.

In the interim, she'll keep the photograph of her grandfather close at hand. "My grandparents married in 1914 when he was in the Russian Imperial Navy," she says. "He died the next year when his ship was torpedoed in the Gulf of Finland by a German boat." A few years later, her grandmother fled Russia for Latvia, taking the photograph with her.

In 1949, Siddall and her parents, siblings and grandmother fled Latvia for the United States and settled in Virginia. "She always had that picture with her, wherever we fled — it was her treasure," Siddall says. S

Siddall's World War I exhibit is on display at the Richmond Public Library through Jan 2.

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