Quite often, I read on forums or in direct communications, someone’s displeasure with museum and “museum-types”. The complaints usually are the same: Not enough stuff (or real stuff or correct stuff) on exhibit, “they don’t know what they are talking about” and “They charge too much for photographs.” I have to admit, most of the time I don’t care for what I see in a museum either. My complaints aren’t without background—I actually received my Masters Degree in museum studies (the official name was “Historical Administration) and worked for fifteen years in the profession.
So, it is with delight when I actually stumble into a museum that really “wows” me—and it has consistently since I first visited it in 1981. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum (WVM) in Madison, Wisconsin, is clearly administered and curated by people who understand their audience.
The first time I visited what was known in 1981 as the “GAR Museum”, it was housed in the State Capitol. Then, it was primarily a Civil War museum. They had flags, weapons and several original weapons on display. One could pull books from the shelves, access the photo collection and page through original manuscripts.
Nearly thirty years later, the WVM is housed in its own building across the street from the capitol. A permanent exhibit chronicles Wisconsin soldiers from the War of 1812 up until today. Literally thousands of artifacts are on display. Collectors will not be turned off by wordy labels written by curators who forget that the artifacts is what brings in the visitors...not the labels! In addition, the staff strives to update and correct any mistakes or misrepresentations that a visitor may discover.
Rotating galleries explore specific military subjects in depth. The staff has aggressively collected items and stories of Wisconsin soldiers. Both the soldier’s gear and words work their way into these exhibits.
In this age of rating everything from the books I read to the people I meet on Facebook, I am going to establish a five-star JAG-scale for museums. WVM receives the following JAG-Rating:
Interesting to a military collector/enthusiast *****
Coolness of artifacts on exhibit ****
Child/family friendly **
Book store/gift shop *****
That last one won’t come as any surprise to WVM...parking has always been a problem in Madison!
Finally, in closing, I would be remiss to not mention Dr. Richard Zeitlin, who was director of WVM as long as I can remember. He passed away last week. His efforts to establish a museum to honor all of Wisconsin’s veterans will remain his legacy.
Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader
Share your “museums for military enthusiasts” recommendations in the “Comments” section below. Feel free to use the 5-Star JAG Rating!