FULTON, Mo. — Walking around the campus of Westminster College with Tim Riley is like going back in time.
He can point out the exact spot where Winston Churchill got out of his car when he visited in 1946. In the college’s gymnasium, he points out the metal pole still strung to the building’s rafters, where a special backdrop was hung for the occasion. Standing outside the old university president’s house he recounts, as the story goes, how Churchill commented during their lunch: “Madam, I believe the pig has reached its highest state of evolution in the form of this ham.”
Riley is the director and chief curator of America’s National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. As such, he leads the efforts to preserve the legacy of Churchill’s visit to the town, about 90 minutes west of St. Louis.
“The 50-minute speech that Churchill gave that day on March 5 changed the course of 20th-century history,” Riley said almost as nonchalantly as he recalled Churchill’s praise of Callaway County ham. It was here that Churchill gave a speech titled “The Sinews of Peace” in which he warned of the Cold War’s earliest chill, coining the term “the Iron Curtain.”
“That speech could have been given anywhere,” Riley said. “It could’ve been in Washington, it could’ve been in New York. But Churchill gave it in the middle of America, in the president’s home state, in an academic setting. He says the great threats to our civilization are war and tyranny, and, as he says, the average apartment and cottage home is threatened by these two marauders. And he makes that message here, not at a joint session of Congress, not at a large metropolitan area or in Washington. He makes it in a place where there are apartments and cottage homes. And I think that resonates.”
After World War II, Churchill received invitations to speak all over the world. The president of Westminster College — with an enrollment of only a few hundred students at the time — sent one as well. It probably would have been overlooked had it not been personally inscribed by President Harry Truman, a Missouri native whose aide was a Westminster alumnus.
In the early 1960s, Westminster College’s leadership began pushing for a way to permanently commemorate Churchill’s visit and legacy. With President John Kennedy’s help, arrangements were made for the ruins of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury — a 17th-century London church designed by Christopher Wren that had been bombed during World War II — to be moved to Fulton and reassembled, brick by brick. The memorial and museum were dedicated in 1969 and declared by Congress as the National Churchill Museum in 2009.
“They could have just had a statute. Everybody does that,” said Edwina Sandys, a British artist who is Churchill’s granddaughter. “I think, in a way, it was quite brilliant not just to take any old thing from London, but to take something special and rebuild it over here. I think that was a stroke of genius.”
The museum’s permanent exhibition was renovated in 2006, drawing on an ever-growing collection of pieces that tell the story of Churchill’s life — his paintings, first-edition copies of his books, ammunition from the beach at Dunkirk, and even a top hat that was signed by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in 1945.
The exhibition focuses on Churchill’s journey, but it builds context through immersive galleries of World War I trenches, the rise of fascism in Europe, and the London Blitz.
Renewed interest in Churchill’s life, driven by films like “Darkest Hour” (2017) and “Dunkirk” (2017), and the drama “The Crown” on Netflix, has driven more visitors to the museum. Attendance is up more than 25 percent in the past two years.
The museum’s exhibition draws visitors’ focus to Churchill’s accomplishments and resolve, giving less attention to the atrocities the British Empire inflicted upon its colonies during his time in government. “It’s a part of the story. We can’t deny it; we can’t ignore it,” Riley said.
The museum also displays a piece of the Berlin Wall that overlooks the campus. In 1990, Sandys acquired a piece of the wall and turned it into a sculpture, “Breakthrough,” to be displayed at the museum.
“Every so often it seems to be relevant again,” said Sandys, who visits the museum at least once a year. She alluded to the ongoing debate about a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico: “And now, in a different way, it is relevant again.”
“I’ve seen the wall up close and personal when it was the Berlin Wall,” said Fletcher Lamkin, Westminster’s president who, near the end of the Cold War, was in the military and commanded a battalion in West Germany. Westminster’s students “need to realize that freedom is worth the sacrifice,” he said. “That a lot of people sacrificed here for generations, in this country, and throughout the world, to have freedom. And it doesn’t come cheap. And it doesn’t come easily.”
Although the museum largely commemorates a specific event in 1946, its programming, temporary and traveling exhibitions, and outreach efforts work to make Churchill’s speech relevant to visitors today. Recently, Riley drew on the “special relationship” between the United States and United Kingdom, a phrase popularized by Churchill. To commemorate its 50th anniversary this year, the museum asked students in Callaway County, Missouri, to paint 6-by-6-inch canvases illustrating what “special relationship” means to them. The canvases now hang in the museum.
“I think, locally here in mid-Missouri, there’s great pride,” Riley said. “And the legacy of Churchill’s speech continues to this day. We’ve had other presidents and prime ministers, ambassadors, make the trip — President Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher. Last year we had the Israeli ambassador speak here, and Fulton is probably not normally on his travel schedule. But because Churchill came here, and these other world leaders recognize and acknowledge the importance of history, these leaders keep coming back.”
“I think my grandfather’s life and memory will stand the test of time,” Sandys said. “Because it’s so varied, and so interesting.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.