An Exhibit’s Beginning

Author: Morgan Meer

Just as scuff marks on a shoe can show an owner’s love, or a thread-bare shirt reveals its favored status, fingerprints left pressed onto the front of a glass case are the sign of a well-loved museum. These smudges are the physical proof of curiosity from a museum’s youngest visitors. This fall, serving as an intern at the Soldier & Sailors Museum, I saw many kids peering into its cases with their hands on the glass as they were captivated by the stories that the exhibits told. 

The Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum has stood in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh for more than a hundred years. Built from 1908 to 1910, this building was dedicated in honor of the 25,000 men from Allegheny County that fought in the American Civil War. Today, in addition to serving as a memorial to all veterans of the United States Armed Forces, the building is home to a museum that displays their memorabilia. 

These artifacts, ranging in origin from the Civil War to twenty-first century military conflicts, are displayed in these glass cases that line the halls of the historic building. Organized by time period and theme, each exhibit tells a unique story about the Pennsylvanians who served in the Armed Forces. Soon, Soldiers & Sailors plans on creating new, updated displays for its visitors. However, before that can happen, the museum must take inventory of its many artifacts. This is a process with which I had the privilege to assist this semester.  

Soldiers & Sailors acquires its artifacts primarily through donations from veterans or their families. Often, these donations occur after a veteran in a family has passed. During drop-off appointments, the museum staff ensures that loved ones know that their donation will be greatly appreciated by the museum and its guests. Next, it is time to catalog these items. Most donations include a large variety of items- uniforms, medals, maps, letters, photographs, and military paperwork are among the most common donations. I learned how to enter each type of item into the museum’s computer system, describing its unique attributes and then photographing or scanning the item to provide an image for each entry. This way, when it is time to update the exhibits, the museum will know exactly what it has available.  

Although I enjoyed learning about this curatorial process, my favorite part of this experience was discovering the stories attached to these artifacts. I read letters sent home to a wife from a husband kept as a prisoner of war in Europe during WWII. I looked at hundreds of photographs that a young man serving in Vietnam took for his parents and younger brother. The artifact I spent most of my time with was a journal kept by a WWII soldier imprisoned in the Philippines. In it, he wrote the name and home addresses of almost a hundred other prisoners. Using online resources, I researched the names to help provide the museum with a record of their identities and future lives. Many survived the war, and many did not, but it was a privilege to complete their story so that the museum and its visitors can remember their service., 

After each donation box is processed, the museum staff places them in one of its two artifact storage facilities. Located on each side of the hall’s massive auditorium, the east and west rooms stretch up three to five stories, respectively. In these towering collections lie stacks of donations, waiting for eventual display. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to assist with this process and contribute to the museum’s efforts to inspire curiosity in the future.

Morgan Meer, Museum Studies Intern at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum

Constellations Group