Griffin's work featured at Smithsonian


PINEDALE – The Smithsonian National Museum of American History houses one of the largest and most prestigious repositories related to the United State’s rich and complicated past. Approximately 1.8 million artifacts, and at least 3 miles of archival shelf space, lie within the institution’s walls.

The Smithsonian has also embraced the digital age, reaching out to people across the globe through online exhibits and blogs.

This month, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s renowned collection will feature a digital display on the collapse of the Berlin Wall curated by Pinedale High School junior Wyatt Griffin.

Griffin’s project, titled “The Delicate Fall of the Berlin Wall,” is part of the National History Day (NHD) program.

Griffin captured second place at the Wyoming History Day Contest in Laramie on April 24-25, earning the opportunity to showcase his work at the 2022 NHD National Contest. He also received a $250 award at State for best use of primary sources.

Nationals were held in a virtual format this year beginning on June 13, with awards announced after press deadlines on Saturday, June 18.

Meanwhile, NHD coordinators chose a select group of exhibits out of the roughly 500,000 annual submissions to accompany collections at national museums and cultural centers, including the Smithsonian.

Griffin is the only student from Wyoming showcasing his project at one of the six institutions highlighting NHD work this year, joining an elite group of students from across the United States and international schools in countries like China, Singapore and South Korea.

“It was awesome,” he said. “I was really surprised when I got the email saying they selected my exhibit to be included (at the Smithsonian) because I didn’t realize that was an option. It was a complete honor to be selected.”

The power of debate and diplomacy

In early November 1989, Günter Schabowski, spokesman for the communist regime in East Germany, misread a press release and announced the opening of the border between his nation and West Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Germans living in East Berlin gathered at the Berlin Wall, a mass of concrete and barbed wire splitting the city in half – a potent symbol of the Cold War divide between East and West.

“People started to flood through the Wall,” Griffin said.

Initially, East German soldiers guarding the Wall attempted to keep people back with fire hoses, Griffin explained. This token act of authority failed to stem the tide.

“Nothing could stop the people,” Griffin said. “They wanted freedom.”

Communist Party officials in East Germany hesitated to use violence against its citizens, their memories still fresh from the Chinese government’s massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square several months earlier, Griffin said. The East German government stepped aside as people from both sides of the Wall tore the hated structure apart.

“No one really saw the collapse of the Wall coming,” said Griffin. “It had been there for so long. It just fell in one day. There was no war, no bullets, no bloodshed – it happened because of all the debate and diplomacy.”

Debate and diplomacy were the themes for the 2022 NHD competition. The fall of the Berlin Wall, a pivotal event marking the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, demonstrated that debate and diplomacy “can go hand in hand,” Griffin said.

“Diplomatically, there was (President Ronald) Reagan pushing for the Wall to be torn down, and then there was (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev talking about glasnost and perestroika, or change and openness,” Griffin explained.

Improved diplomacy between American and Soviet leaders and pressure for reform across Eastern Europe fueled public demonstrations against communism in East Germany during the late 1980s, known as the Monday Morning Protests, Griffin explained.

“Groups of people would gather in front of the wall in protest,” he said. “The protests kept getting bigger and bigger, until there was a huge surge of over a million protestors. That was the culmination of all the debate and diplomacy.”

Digging into the past

Griffin possesses a keen interest in the past, and although he is only beginning his junior year, he is already considering history as a college major. Griffin and his family visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., when he was 5 or 6.

“I remember there was a big section about the Berlin Wall there,” he said.

Griffin used the Berlin Wall for his final sophomore history project. Inspired by PHS social studies teachers Josh Fog and Rose Robertson, Griffin decided to expand his classroom assignment into an exhibit for the NHD competitions.

“I started doing more research, using more primary sources,” he said. “I just started digging and building a story.”

The collapse of the Berlin Wall occurred in the age of cable news and the amount of sources available for Griffin to wade through seemed daunting at first.

“I really hadn’t done any big research projects like this before, so I didn’t know 100 percent where to look for primary sources,” he said.

Griffin enlisted the help of his sister, a college student, and access to her university library account to begin the search for “reputable sources.” He then discovered the online collection of primary sources available through the National Archives before moving on to the Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy presidential libraries online.

Griffin became adept at navigating the enormous digital archive, allowing him to “have a piece of history at my fingertips.”

Griffin relied heavily on primary sources and used secondary sources to serve as a guide in organizing the reams of government documents and first-hand accounts from people who participated in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Reading accounts written by people involved in the event was a powerful way to experience history, Griffin said. His favorites included documents from the speechwriter behind Reagan’s famous 1987 “Tear Down This Wall!” address.

“(The speechwriter) described the experience of talking with civilians in Berlin about how much the Wall hurt them,” Griffin said. “It had been there for years, but the people couldn’t forget it was there. The Wall separated people from their families.”

Griffin used imagery to enhance his exhibit, picking through thousands of photographs and newsreels from the period to find the right illustrations to tell his story. He zeroed in on powerful photographs of elderly East Germans refugees fleeing through underground tunnels, an 18-year-old East German boy shot and killed by border guards and children playing “Wall” using blocks and toy guns to mimic reality in Berlin before 1989.

On top of picking up new skills as a historian, Griffin learned the importance of time management. He served as sophomore class president in Student Council and is also active in 4-H, band, wrestling and golf, yet managed to find time to complete his award-winning history exhibit.

“It was a lot of late nights,” he said. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into that project.”

Griffin thanked Fog and Robertson for reviewing his exhibit and providing feedback. He also gave a shoutout to his sister and mother for their support and help.

Griffin’s virtual display is available for viewing through June 27 on the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s website at https://learninglab.si.edu/collections/national-history-day-2022-virtual-showcase/3o0BqdCxiKe6mrvy.

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