A true veterans museum?

American History Workshop is now working with the brilliant Sherry Kafka Wagner on a re-design of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. Our clients are a splendid group of young public historians. They are committed both to a broader public understanding and to serving the population of Wisconsin vets and their families who might use the museum’s collections, exhibitions, and programs to affirm and make better sense of their own experience in wartime.

The staff presides over an astonishing collection of artifacts, mostly bearing physical traces and narrative connections, to Wisconsin men and women who fought for the United States from the Civil War up to and including our current efforts in Afghanistan. The most treasured objects, which formed the first incarnation of the museum in the old state capitol back in the 1880s, are the 150-plus silk battle flags, many of them shredded after being carried in the fierce fighting of the Civil War. The museum’s current exhibition, which dates from the early 1990s, surveys that military history rather well. Unhappily, there’s barely enough space to incorporate the wars of the past decade — that’s one impetus for the re-design of the whole exhibition.

As we begin to rethink the exhibition, I’m struck by the difference between a military history exhibition, like the current installation, and a true museum of the veterans’ experience. At this point, the museum tells the story of each war, beginning with its context in global conflicts, and illustrates the combat experience with weapons (including, for example, a Vietnam-era helicopter), gear, personal mementos, and fascinating trophies of war. Like any “new military history” effort influenced by John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1975), it focuses on the common soldier and an eye-level view of the battlefield, rather than on the strategy of the generals. Like any public project planned before Ken Burns’s PBS Civil War series, it calls out for more stories from those soldiers.

But wouldn’t a museum of veterans start and end a long way from the battlefield itself? Sherry Wagner and the staff have agreed on a framework that starts with the call to arms and concludes with the homecoming. I think we might go even further. Military service marks a whole life. It begins in local places and carries its participants into distant fields of battle and then returns them to transformed lives back home. More recent writing, like Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage (1987) and War Within War (1999) or Karl Marlantes’s What It Is Like To Go To War (2011), explore how narrative, memory, postwar readjustment, and moral reflection constantly reshape personal stories of combat.

And even further? Like slavery and immigration, military service does not confine its emotional reach to its participants or to only one generation. In reality, whole families go to war along with their sons and daughters, and their stories might profitably also be told in a museum of veterans. The WVM has a rich and growing collection of oral histories. Most of them tell of days in battle, at the Bulge or Hue or Fallujah. Do we need to start recording accounts as well of coming home, of post-combat stress, of how vets rethink their time at war, of the experience of family members?

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