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.
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
Last week, I wrote about how the militaria collecting community embraces new collectors by providing invaluable guidance and answers to questions newbies might have. I also touched on the giving and generous nature these folks have toward genuinely interested, potential newcomers to the pastime.
With my day job, I have the wonderful opportunity to stay off the road a few days each week by telecommuting to work and plugging into my company and team workload electronically, which affords me the opportunity to be around my family during the day. Earlier this week, the doorbell rang about the time of our normal, daily postal delivery. I answered the door to see our letter carrier standing with a stack of mail and a parcel. Unfazed by the delivery contents, I thanked the postal worker as I grabbed the bundle and closed the door.
Walking away from door, I checked the parcel to see that it was addressed to my son. Just a few days before, I was checking the latest postings on one of the militaria forums as I was catching up on some of the amazing new discoveries other collectors were sharing when I saw something that caught my eye. It was a posting that was offering something special to a young, budding collector (under seventeen years of age) provided he or she is the first to respond to the thread.
As it was a school day and my kids are home-schooled, my son was nearby immersed in his math studies. I called him over to read the posting and to look at the pictures of the free item that was offered by this thoughtful collector. My son, who is fourteen, has a keen interest in history, including military history (hard to tell where he gets that from) and took to militaria a little more than a year ago. He read the details of the forum post and I watched as his eyes grew wide, viewing a full set of medals, full and miniature, ribbon and lapel pin of a fairly current Navy Cross in a presentation case, in unissued, new condition. He promptly responded to the offer, indicating that he wanted the medal for his collection.
Since my son has embarked on his own militaria collecting venture, he has been the recipient of several similar offers ranging from medals to patches and even a World War II Eisenhower uniform jacket in pristine condition. These fellow collectors, in their efforts to spark the next generation of collectors, are almost obstinate in their refusal to accept so much as a penny to cover shipping costs. These folks do this (quite often, in fact) out of the kindness of their heart and knowing the joy that it brings the youngster on the receiving end.
I walked to the table, returning to my laptop where my son was also seated with his books. In my hand was the package containing the Navy Cross set. I reached out to him with the package with butterflies in my stomach. I was almost as excited to see the medal as he was! Responsibilities come first in our house so I told him that he could open it once his work was completed. It pained me to do that…heck, I wanted to open it!
A few hours later, my son opened his package and was giddy as he removed the medal case from the bubble wrap. He opened the case and carefully removed each piece from its individual wrapping while we discussed the reasons Navy and Marine Corps personnel are awarded this beautifully-designed valor decoration. We discussed how this medal didn’t belong to him (it wasn’t awarded to him) and that he was merely a steward – charged with learning about it and sharing the history with others.
Sharing – this is something my son, along with many other young militaria collectors, is learning as it is being demonstrated to him by other collectors.