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How Should We Curate Vietnam?

Ways to help communities embrace and connect with veterans


Americans who fought in Vietnam were the last generation of combat vets to bring home significant amounts of souvenirs “purchased and captured.” They were also the first to take not only black and white, but also color photos, slides and movies.
 
“They wrote letters and recorded tapes and cassettes,” said Bill Brewster, a museum curator, to an audience of history enthusiasts at a recent conference in St. Paul, Minn. Brewster urged use of all those things in museum programs and exhibits. These objects, he said, help the public understand our nation’s most divisive conflict.

(MORE: The Gulf of Tonkin: Reflections, 50 Years Later)
 
I was a presenter, along with Brewster and Jeff Kollath, at the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), a group focused on preserving and interpreting history to make it more meaningful for the rest of us.
 
Our session on curating the U.S. War in Vietnam was maybe not as sexy as Garrison Keillor’s witty keynote or topics as diverse as digital presentations, game design and a Twitter Reenactment of Quantrill’s Raid. And how could we compete with the History Happy Hour? 
 
I was worried no one would come.
 
But about 60 of the 1,000 attendees did show for our session, “The Battle for Vietnam: Understanding a Divisive Conflict Through Museum Programming and Exhibitions.”
 
The result was an inspiring, provocative conversation about how historians in organizations large and small can help their communities present evenhanded programs about Vietnam.

(MORE: Soldiers are Marching Back to School)
 

Don’t Follow Stereotypes
 
Much of the credit goes to my fellow presenters. Brewster, curator of Collections at the First Division Museum at Cantigny since 2011, spent 16 years in a similar position with The Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison, Wisc., where I met and worked with him. An expert on military uniforms and weaponry, he oversaw the doubling of the museum’s object collection. Kollath also worked at the museum during that time, serving as its curator of history.
 
Together, they launched a series of exhibits and programs on the Vietnam War — in Madison, Wisconsin of all places, a hotbed of anti-war activity — that were honest, fair and thoughtful. The results included enlightened community conversation and mutual understanding. Worth sharing with their fellow state and local historians, no?
 
During our session, Brewster explained how to engage Vietnam veterans in plans and programs. “Do not assume the worst based on stereotypes,” he reminded them, pointing out that members of the military during the Vietnam era (including me) were a cross section of society.
 
“Teachers, lawyers, doctors, bus drivers, factory workers, students, dropouts and thieves,” Brewster noted. “This is true in every war when the proportion of any given society in service significantly increases.”
 
How Museums Can Bridge The Divide
 
Kollath put key questions to the audience, challenging them to ponder these and others as they put together their own plans:

  • What role can museums play in bridging divides that still exist?
  • How can we create a safe space for the veteran population to share their personal wartime experience, while still creating programming that engages the civilian population?
  • What can we learn from the Vietnam era that is relevant today?
  • Which community partners or affinity groups might you collaborate with?

 
Kollath closed with a plea for state and local historians to embrace the challenge and engage the veteran community.
 
“You will get yelled at,” he told them, “but that’s OK,” he said. He told them to remember that the rewards outweigh the risks.
 
“Museums can offer their own, new interpretations,” he added.
 

Make Music Part The Program
 
For my part, as the panel’s Vietnam veteran, I proposed including the music of the era in their programs as a good way to connect with local audiences, especially veterans.

(MORE: James Brown, Vietnam and Race)
 
“For the men and women who served in Southeast Asia, music was what linked them to their generation,” I pointed out. “They sang along to The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and The Temptations before they went to war, and they listened to them after they came back home.”
 
I told the stories of veterans for whom And When I Die, What’s Going On, We Gotta Get Out of This Place and other songs helped them “to form bonds, express their feelings and hold on to the humanity the world was trying to take away.”
 
I drew on hundreds of conversations that my colleague, UW-Madison Professor Craig Werner, and I have had for our upcoming book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War. Our book tells the story of the war through the music-based memories of those who were there.
 
During the Q&A, we fielded questions about subjects ranging from the veracity of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, to how to incorporate the views of the anti-war movement to best practices for seeking out and engaging Vietnam veterans.
 
As happens often when this war is the topic of conversation, many of the questioners took the time to reflect on how they were personally affected by that time and that turbulence.
 
In short, while it wasn’t Prairie Home Companion or a Twitter reenactment of anything, our presentation didn’t just inform those who were there, it helped them, I believe, to reflect and to heal. If only for 75 minutes on a warm September afternoon.

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