Category Archives: Displays

Showcasing Your Militaria Investment


What good is a collection if it is maintained behind a closet door (where mine tends to be), stored in the basement or locked in a trunk? We spend years gathering items and filling in gaps in our collections as we reach goals that, in some cases, could take a lifetime to achieve. Despite those successes, we fail when we choose to keep them under wraps, hidden from the eyes of our house guests.

Most collectors’ spouses raise objections to the idea of them bringing old, musty-smelling objects into the spaces that we regularly inhabit. Olive drab hardly matches any home decor and the idea of weapons, armament and mannequins occupying limited floor or wall space tends to create friction with our spouses or significant others.

When I can, I like to visit museums that choose to commit their valuable floor real estate to displaying military history. I enjoy seeing the care that was taken by the staff to draw from the collection a tasteful blend of artifacts to present specific themes or create visual representations of specific historic events. Knowing that too much can cause viewers to gloss over the display, missing the all of the details. Too few artifacts or vague information cards in a display can have a similar effect. In both cases, the efforts of the curator are laid to waste as the museum visitor ambles past the display.

Through my membership in the U.S. Militaria Forum, I have seen some very impressive personal collections with well thought out displays that rival any of the best museums in the United States. From the hand-crafted cases and cabinets to the tastefully selected art hung on the walls, these collectors demonstrate that their investment is something to share with others.

Take note of the mannequin’s altered ring finger on the left hand that matches Nimitz’ partial amputation from 1916 (source: Naval Academy Museum).

Not too long ago, the Naval Academy Museum shared some photos on their Facebook page of one of their latest displays that showcases one of the most historic events of the last century, the signing of the Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Presented is the uniform worn by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz on that September 1945 day in Tokyo Bay. The display clearly shows his khaki uniform with the rare 5-star insignia affixed to each collar. The museum staff went as far to alter the mannequin’s left ring finger to match Nimitz’s left hand: a portion of his finger was severed in 1916 by a diesel engine that he was demonstrating.

The key, limiting factor in my home is that I have a considerable lack of space. It is challenging enough to store my collection so the thought of propping up torsos to show my uniforms is nullified. Besides, it can be a little disturbing to walk into a room and see a still and quiet human-form at 4:00 AM as I prepare to head off to work.

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a public showing of my military baseball collection at our state fair in their hobby hall. My artifacts where showcased in and among adult and youth collections that were varied, ranging from pig-themed collectibles to artifacts from our nation’s bicentennial celebration. This year, I have yet another part of my militaria collection on display at the state fair. Being that the overwhelming military population (veterans, retirees, reservists and active duty personnel) is army and air force, I wanted to educate the citizenry on enlisted uniforms of the United States Navy. I gathered a few selections of my enlisted rating badges and uniforms to spotlight the history, designs and the ratings themselves.  My wife and I visited the fair and stood in the distance to observe visitors to see how they respond to what I had on display. People-watching is fun but seeing people enjoying these artifacts is pleasing and provides some satisfaction to collecting, even if I can only experience it on rare occasions.

Spotlight on private collector militaria displays

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Reaching the Pinnacle of Militaria Collecting


This uniform group belonged to Rear Admiral Robert Copeland who received the Navy Cross for his heroic attack (while in command of the USS Samuel B. Roberts and the destroyers of “Taffy 3″) against a Japanese battleship force in the Battle off Samar (source: D. Schwind).

I’ve been collecting militaria for about three years and nothing that I’ve purchased for my collection is worthy of comparison to some of the impressive acquisitions that I’ve seen other, more seasoned collectors acquire. Some of these people have reached what I would characterize as the pinnacle of militaria groupings that could put most museums’ collections to shame.

Flight suit belonging to Distinguished Service Cross recipient, Colonel Francis Gabby Gabreski.

I spend a great deal of time touring history- and military-themed museums in my local area. On occasion, a museum might have an item or group related to a recognizable name from our nation’s military history. For me, there is a sense of being close to a significant contributor or a pivotal moment that made a difference in the outcome of the battle or even the war at the sight of a famous veteran’s personal effects. One would expect to see these sorts of artifacts in a museum… but what about a private collection?

In the world of militaria collecting, obtaining a named uniform of a veteran who participated in a significant battle and, perhaps receiving a valor medal for his (or her) service while under fire adds a massive layer of icing for that piece of cake. What if that item was from a well-known historical figure? Audie Murphy? General MacArthur? The chances are extremely remote that a collector would be able to locate a genuine item belonging to one of these people, let alone being able to afford to acquire it.

This jacket belonged to Major General George S. Patton Jr.

In the community of United States Militaria collectors (to which I belong), there are several folks who have worked diligently to acquire uniforms and decoration sets that belonged to notable military figures from American history. From general or flag officers to member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (some holding the position of Chairman, JCS) to Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipients, these collectors have reached a level that regardless of the time, effort or finances, I could never achieve.

Extreme Collections

For now, I will simply settle on admiring these collections from afar.

Civil War Shadow Box Acquisition: “Round” One is a Win


(Note: This is a multi-part series covering my research and collecting project for one of my ancestors who was a veteran of the American Civil War)

Yesterday’s mail delivery netted for me my initial foray into American Civil War artifact collecting. I like to counsel would-be militaria collectors to focus on their collecting – choose a specific area of interest and pursue that area. While I have been trying to live and collect by this guidance, to the casual observer it would appear that, with this purchase, I have altered my stance.

My collecting focus has been centered upon one thing: creating displays or groups that provide a visual reference of specific veterans in my family and honor their service. That direction has predominantly led me to twentieth century militaria collecting as the items would pertain to those individuals’ service. Another contributing factor has been the affordability and abundance of World War II militaria. It has been a bit more challenging to assemble artifacts from the Great War.

Showing the beautiful labeling on the .52 caliber Sharps Carbine round acquired for my shadow box display.

Showing the beautiful labeling on the .52 caliber Sharps Carbine round acquired for my shadow box display.

The package that was delivered to my door yesterday was small and weighed very little and yet this item would be one of the central pieces in my small display dedicated to the service of my great, great, great grandfather. In researching him and discovering certain details of his service, I decided that I wanted to assemble some significant artifacts for a shadow box that would provide subtle.

This .52 caliber Sharps Carbine Round was excavated from the battlefield at Malvern Hill.

This .52 caliber Sharps Carbine Round was excavated from the battlefield at Malvern Hill.

Understanding that my 3x great grandfather served in a cavalry unit, I began to research the engagements they participated in. While I am still waiting for my ancestor’s service records, I made some safe assumptions as to which specific campaigns and battles that he participated in, following his regiment and company’s history. Armed with those details, I began to search for anything that could be closely connected to him. Having researched the weaponry, I determined that he would have carried a Sharps Carbine by the time his regiment participated in the battle at Malvern Hill and used that information to search for specific artifacts.

This Model 1859 Sharps “New Model” Carbine .52 Cal rifle was the principal weapon for the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry – once they shed their lances (source: National Firearms Museum).

This Model 1859 Sharps “New Model” Carbine .52 Cal rifle was the principal weapon for the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry – once they shed their lances (source: National Firearms Museum).

My search led me to several choices of “dug” artifacts, many of which were in my budget. I honed in on one specific bullet round, a .52 caliber “New Model” Sharps Carbine round that had, more than likely, been dropped on the battlefield. The round is beautifully labeled with details about where it was found and what it is and it came from the collection of a known Civil War expert. Feeling safe about the item, the seller’s history and the aesthetic qualities, I went ahead with my purchase.

For the remaining items, I will continue to be patient and educate myself before I pull the trigger (pun intended).

Continued:

 

Displaying the Diamond: Military Baseball Public Showing


I have been collecting militaria for several years. I enjoy seeing, touching and sometimes smelling these object of history. I have a couple items on full-time display in my home and I enjoy the ensuing conversation that is sparked by guests who take an interest. For the most part, my collection is hidden in my closet and boxes in various places within my home. However, this week I have been given the opportunity to share a portion of my treasures with a decidedly larger audience that the visitors to my home.

In my home state’s largest fair there is a considerably large facility that is used to showcase various hobbies that people participate in. There are several categories of hobbies represented ranging from wood and metal working, crafts and scrap-booking. Perhaps the largest portion of  floor space is dedicated to the various areas of collecting (coins, stamps, dolls, toys, clocks, etc.). In all my years of attending the fair, I can recollect one instance of a militaria collection displayed and that was last autumn (an amazing collection of armed forces nurse uniforms). From that moment, I was decidedly interested in sharing my significantly smaller (than the nurses display) collection the following year.

As I began to consider what I wanted to submit as an entrant to this year’s fair, I wanted to be more unique, more specific than simply presenting my collection of military uniforms. One area that I have been more focused upon in the past four years, military sports, has afforded me the opportunity to acquire items that span two genres of my collecting interests. Also, my collection has grown enough that a small display consisting of the mixture of types of pieces (uniforms, equipment, photographs and ephemera) would be quite tastefully displayed. With my concept decided, I began the process of submitting my collection.

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The fair committee does strive for diversity in what they like to have on display and while seeking to prevent repeating collections year after year, they also try to ensure that the spaces are completely filled. I started the two-part process (electronic submission, followed by a paper form and photographs) by completing the online form a week prior to the deadline. I downloaded the paper form and set it aside, forgetting it for several days and then resigning myself to wait until next year as the deadline arrived. The following week, my phone rang during my afternoon commute and I was asked if I could bring the paper form to their office within 48 hours and that they wanted me to display my collection. I was elated and excitedly agreed to complete the remaining elements of the submission process.

Two weeks later, I received the formal acceptance letter and exhibitor packet. Getting a head-start on determining what and how I would display my collection, I selected pieces and acquired the necessary accessories (mannequins, stands, etc.) to achieve a tasteful presentation.

Move-in day went smoothly and my display was finished within a few hours as a raging, late-summer windstorm howled outside.  All items carefully placed and locked into the cabinet, I snapped a few pictures and left for home. Overnight, the high winds were supplanted by terrible rainfall (three inches in just a few hours). Driving home from the fair the previous day, I remembered that I had one more piece that I wanted to display along with a few corrections to the information placard. I intended on returning in the early afternoon. When I turned my phone on, I discovered a harsh reality of displaying outside of my home. It seemed that the storm that blew in deposited a large quantity of leaves on the fair building’s roof clogging the downspouts as the rain (deluge) began to fall. The ensuing flood on the roof resulted in water penetrating the building and meandering its way into the display case that was housing my collection (mine was the only one affected).

The news was not good – some of my pieces were wet and the fair staff emptied my case to allow it to begin drying. When I arrived and saw the stained and crumbling ceiling tiles, I knew that the damage to my pieces would be considerable. Surveying my collection, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was very few pieces got wet and – the damage was simply moisture on one of the uniform trousers. The remainder of my collection was safe (and carefully removed from the case by the fair workers) which was a relief considering the ephemera (programs/scorecards from championship games) and photographs (some over 100 years old) were unaffected by the moisture. I was provided a secure space to store the dry items and I loaded what was wet and took it with me. My initial reaction to what happened to my collection was to load it all into my truck and forego displaying. As the current owner ans steward of these artifacts, I was concerned about further risk. Insurance can recoup the financial loss, but the history would be lost should any further harm befall these pieces.

I had to wait for another opportunity to return to put the display back together once the leaks were addressed. Later that week, my wife returned with me to assist and the display came together nicely. With a few changes (from the previous configuration) the final presentation turned out to be much more aesthetically balanced and pleasing. Rather than dominate my display with every piece of military baseball material that I own, I selectively chose examples that would inform the audience of the prevalence and impact that baseball has had on our culture, in particular, within the ranks of the armed forces.

The fair is set to open this week and the risk of loss is still present until I bring my collection home.  What I am learning is invaluable and is preparing me to recognize and consider the risks with clarity for future public showcasing of my collection. Through the militaria collector community I have heard the horror stories regarding theft and damage and I will factor those anecdotes (along with this experience) into future decisions. I am hopeful that the positives outweigh the detractors and the audience truly enjoys and appreciates what they are seeing. Fortunately, there is a feedback mechanism in place and the fair staff told me that it is very common for viewers to submit questions and reach out to the collectors.

It would be an absolute pleasure to hear from a veteran who donned a uniform, cap and spikes and took to the diamond for his unit!

See:

Fall In! Getting Back to Militaria After a Long Summer


What a summer! For the small percentage of my readers who know me personally, understanding my absence from this blog is quite easy. For the rest of those who follow this blog, I apologize for my absence as these past few months have been consumed by some of my other passions (family time and cycling).

During my hiatus from writing about my militaria passion one would suspect that I would have increased my collection and subsequently queued up a backlog of topics and subjects to capture your attention. Sadly (for you), I’ve done neither choosing instead to spend time immersed in a myriad of activities and projects. As certain as the coming of the autumn rain (I know, it is still technically summer for a few more days), my attention can now wander back toward military history and the related objects we collect.

Speaking of working on projects, my collecting subsequent research has me steadily gathering items for a surprise shadow box for a family member. Without going into great detail, the subject of the shadow box was a Navy veteran of World War II enlisting a year (or so) prior to the Unite States’ entry. In fact, this sailor was serving aboard the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) along with his older brother during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

USS Pennsylvania - After the Japanese attack.

USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) smoldering in Pearl Harbor Navy Yard dry dock #1 along with USS Cassin (DD-372) and USS Downes (DD-375) following the Japanese attack (source: U.S. Navy image).

Armed with scant few details, I embarked upon a search of available (online) sources to uncover as much data as possible in order to submit a detailed request (to obtain service records) to the National Archives (NARA). In order to create a complete shadow box (with all of the appropriate medals, ribbons, rating badge, etc.), I need to be armed with the most accurate information about the veteran’s service as I can.

One thing that I have learned through my experiences in dealing with records from NARA is that I cannot rely on the information as being entirely complete or the last, defining word in accuracy. In requesting a copy of my own “complete” service record, I noted that it lacked entire years of my service and resulted in the processor summarizing my career awards and decorations significantly short of what I actually earned. Fortunately for me, my command made an entire hard copy of my full service record upon separation from active duty. So, proceed with caution when using NARA-obtained service records and awards summaries.

WWII Navy Shadow Box

An example of a WWII Navy Veteran’s shadow box (my grandfather’s) is what I am going for with this project.

For accuracy, it is best to have multiple data sources to both verify what one source states but to also discover any holes or gaps. Researching beyond individuals’ service records requires exponentially more work. If one can determine which commands (i.e. vessels) a sailor served aboard (using muster sheets), the researcher then needs to determine the specific history of that unit including campaigns and battles it participated in. This will help determine any unit awards the sailor might have earned that are not listed within the personnel file or service record.

Due to their popularity and the nature of their service, researching unit history for a well-known combatant such as a battleship or cruiser can be much more simplified than that of a fleet tug or minesweeper. For the BB-38 and this relative’s service aboard the ship, the research is quite simple and the decorations are minimal (considering the ship spent the majority of the first sixteen months under repair and modernization). During her inactive time in the shipyards, the crew was sent out to the fleet to serve where needed. Following detachment from the Pennsylvania, this relative served aboard a destroyer followed by time in confinement (for fighting), ultimately being punitively discharged late in the war.

Regardless of the manner in which his wartime service came to an abrupt end, looking back on the positives of this veteran’s wartime service and honoring it with a collection of artifacts that recognize that is a worthwhile project. This will be much appreciated by his family and serves to bring me back from my lengthy summer distraction from militaria collecting.