For a couple of years now, I’ve been curious about the Military Family Museum in Tijeras, New Mexico, and have been in correspondence with its director, Circe Woessner, who hit me up for some names of military spouse fiction-and-poetry writers about a year ago when she said she was designing a milspouse exhibit. I gave her some names, and many writers who’ve been featured on this blog ended up contributing to the museum exhibit, as well. I think we were all a little curious as to what the finished exhibit was going to be like. As the closest of any of us to the museum itself, geographically, I’d been plotting to get to there somehow and report back– but at 400 miles away, I was just not quite close enough!
Finally, a family vacation to the Grand Canyon this past week provided the opportunity to pass by Tijeras, a suburb of Albuquerque, and visit the Military Family Museum in person.
The museum sits just off big-sky I-40, in a New Mexico landscape dusty, windblown, and golden-brown, but with the first mint-green leaves appearing on otherwise bare, white trees–a welcome and lovely sight that hasn’t reached Colorado Springs yet. Its building is a small adobe ranch house that once belonged to a woman named Molly, who must have been well-liked, as the bar next door is named after her.
Circe, an Army wife-and-mom, was outside bustling about, and she waved us down, shouting, “I saw your license plates!” A powerhouse of pure energy, I don’t think she stopped moving the entire time we were there. I don’t think she actually sleeps. The museum is a passion project for her, one she dreamed from the ground up, and her creative vision is evident in every aspect. Her entire family is involved; many times, pointing things out in the museum, she’d say, “My dad hung those up,” or, “I got my mom to make those for me.” She quit her job with the VA a while back to concentrate on the museum. Her husband, former Cavalry, was slightly nervous about this, but supportive.
Circe told us the museum is meant to be experiential; visitors are invited to contribute, participate, touch. When we stepped inside, we were instantly surrounded by artifacts that have been sent in by hundreds of service members, spouses, and military kids, items at once familiar and different from many in my own home. The main floor has been transformed into a sort of symbolic military-family house, with all kinds of objects (uniforms waiting to be ironed, boots by the fireplace, cupboards full of beer-steins and mugs from Germany, Japan) placed where they might be in any home, but in larger numbers, or displayed in ways that add meaning to their functionality.
There’s something about the layering that’s meaningful in an unexpected way. Instead of one family’s portraits on the mantle, there are dozens of families’: service members’ official portraits, family photos. Instead of one type of uniform in the laundry basket, there are several: Army, Air Force uniforms folded and stacked. Military spouses have contributed handmade potholders which hang above the stove. Prayer flags made by female veterans in an art workshop hang from a beam.
The museum is patriotic, in its way, but not stuffy. There’s love of country-and-citizens without jingoism, machismo, or strident nationalism. No isms! Instead, it’s creative and honest. The bathroom, again in a stroke of inspiration on Circe’s part, has been made into an exhibit about the struggles of addicted veterans and family. There, printed panels hang, describing addictions to various substances along with concrete tips for what to do in the event of an overdose. Along the walls are portraits veterans have sketched of themselves in a therapy session. Guests are invited to open the drawers and take bracelets, pamphlets. The space beneath the sink, again symbolically, is filled with empty bottles–because such things are hidden. Next to all the promotional bands and buttons in adjacent drawers, overspilling in cheerful yellow-and-blue, the installation seems to be having a conversation about the many tries people make at recovery, and how easy it can be to look well on the outside when the inside is falling apart.
Is this what you’d expect at a military museum? It wasn’t what I had expected.
I was a little bit blown away.
Further exhibits showcase military-child experiences throughout the years:
Here’s the former Army uniform of MSBR contributor and poet, Caroline LeBlanc:
At a desk, visitors can fill in postcards about their military experiences–or responses to the museum in general. Circe reads them all. She’s received over 600. Some are positive, or nostalgic; others are “people saying, ‘You’re a bunch of warmongers!'” Circe laughs. People can express what they like. Tolerance is the name of the game here. But I don’t think this museum is a war-mongering one.
It would be hard to cover all of the exhibits in one blog post, so I will try to give an overview. There’s an “In Memoriam,” where families have sent in the foot lockers and possessions of service members who have died. Some service members have contributed tiny shrines. The foot lockers are stacked, closed. I imagine one could look inside them, if they asked.
There’s an exhibit about DoD schools, and in the back yard–where naturalization ceremonies are regularly held– there’s a “wind phone,” just like the one Matthew Komatsu recently described in his article “After the Tsunami.” People use these to make phone calls to loved ones who are gone. “Oh!” I cried to Circe, “my friend wrote about this! He saw one of these in Japan!”
“Yes,” she said, “ours is modeled after one from Japan.” Perhaps it was the same one. She said that a woman was coming over, by appointment, later that day to use it.
I promised I’d report back to the mil spouses I recruited to contribute to this exhibit, so I’ll post pictures of some of their words below. It’s important to remember that the museum is constantly evolving. **Mil spouses: If you are not included here yet, send things in! Send a copy of your book for the museum’s terrific research library. Send photos or mementos. They will very likely be worked into the exhibit.**
It was so startlingly….cozy for me to see the words of women I know, in many cases well, and have come to respect and admire so much over the last five or so years. It’s hard to put into words. There was an exhibit about….my friends. I know many of these books, these poems, very well. They are close to the bone.
Here’s MSBR poetry editor Lisa Stice:
I actually let out a clap-laugh of joy to see Abby Murray’s “When He Receives Orders…” on the wall, the only milspouse to sneak a good ol’ FUCK into the exhibit, but, of course, in the form of a demure prohibition.
I was specifically asked by Circe to comment on my experience as a milspouse blogger-writer, and so my contribution is a bit cheerlead-y, but I don’t mind being a cheerleader for these women.
I need a good synonym for “lifestyle,” but anyway. There’s mine.
And I won’t lie that my heart went pitty-pat when I saw this:
Aw, my little blog! — well-intentioned, chugging machine.
So here’s what I love about the Military Family Museum, just as much as I love Abby Murray’s “Don’t Say F&ck” on the wall. It recently published an anthology called SHOUT!: Sharing Our Truth: An Anthology of Writings by LGBT Veterans and Family Members of the U.S. Military Services.
My 13-year-old daughter and I both read the book cover-to-cover on the drive home. It’s terrific: raw and unfiltered oral testimonies from service members, military kids, and more. Circe Woesnner and a friend, Lora Beldon, collected these histories themselves, did the editing, and published them.
There are stories from trans service members. Brothers and sisters of gay kids, and the kids themselves. Sometimes anonymous, sometimes not, but sharing their stories. Some faced enormous risk at the hands of the military, or their own families — risk that cannot be overstated.
But many of them also made me laugh. And one in particular, from a military spouse whose stepson told her he was trans –I love her response.
Our only option, truly, was to open my arms with love…..I had trouble with one ultra-religious friend who felt free to point and judge on my Facebook page where my kid saw it, but then, as my brother said, she was never very bright and always was a Nazi bitch.
That’s how you respond, when you are family. And that’s the feeling I got from the Military Family Museum: that stories matter, individuals matter. You don’t need to fit a proscribed narrative and you don’t need to say what isn’t true. The vision and energy of the museum are infectious, inspiring. There’s art here, and that’s not something you can say for every place you come across.
Museum of the American Military Family
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