Updated: Apr 11, 2022
By Loren Webb and Michelle Bridges
Every family seems to have that story of great-grandpa’s war story in the Great War that has made it’s way down through family lore — his helmet, knife, and letters also survived the generations and each has a story to tell. The “Bringing War Home: Object Stories, Memory and Modern War” project connects students, communities, military families, and war veterans together to discuss the “material culture of war.” Two Utah State University professors have received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to help people appreciate how objects can assist us in understanding war.
Susan R. Grayzel, professor of history, and Molly Cannon, director of the Anthropology Museum and the Mountain West Center at USU, were awarded the grant in May 2021.
The two-year grant requires that applicants pick two wars to focus on during the project. The professors chose World War I because they felt it was important to document veteran and family stories of this war since it is possibly one of the last chances before much of it is lost forever. They opted for the Vietnam War as there is so much more to be learned by interacting with a generation that is still able to share their experiences, although they too, are also rapidly diminishing.
The project includes two related parts: one, a series of in-person “community roadshows” designed to digitally record the story of participants’ personal war objects, and two, a book box and/or book discussions centered around Vietnam War veteran and author Tim O’Brien’s book, “The Things They Carried.”
Cannon said she is excited “to share these opportunities with Utahns because the project provides a platform where they get to document their history and tell their stories, using their experiences and the objects that preserve those memories.”
Class connects students to ‘real’ war perspectives
Grayzel explained that the 100th anniversary of the First World War drew lots of attention. “One of the things that happened in Europe, in particular, was a series of endeavors to collect ephemera, writings, and artifacts from the First World War, but that did not really happen in the United States as far as I know.”
Co-teaching a class about the year 1918 with colleague, Evelyn Funda in the USU English Department, Grayzel felt that if they could have a day where their students invited the community to bring in artifacts from WWI they might gain a different perspective on the war. That is when Grayzel and Funda turned to Molly Cannon, director of the University’s Anthropology Museum.
“She came in and helped us connect with the folks at (Utah) Public Radio. We had only about six weeks to plan and create this event. So with about 20 students interested in digitally recording objects and asking questions about them,” Grayzel said. “We opened the campus on a Saturday morning, crossed our fingers, and had no idea what would happen.”
The response from the community was better than Grayzel had anticipated, and after digitally recording objects and interviewing family members, students wrote reflections on the activity. “By having students view and handle objects belonging to military veterans,” Grayzel said. “It brought a certain energy into the classroom where they felt this powerful connection to the veterans.”
Students commented that they never understood these war veterans were real people and were surprised that people would preserve these various war objects, as well as the stories they told.
Roadshows preserve war objects’ stories
Grayzel and Cannon began talking about how they could reach a broader audience with a similar experience.
They were aware that the NEH had a particular program called “Dialogues on the Experiences of War” designed to connect humanities scholars and students with veterans. However, this NEH program had not really funded a project that looked at “material culture” — objects shared by a group of people that can include everyday items like utensils, clothing, shelters and objects that connect people through ritual, ceremony and celebration.
Cannon adds that “As an archeologist, I know the power of objects, that’s what we study. As undergraduates, we’re trained to extract meaning from the most mundane of objects and how to sort of read more to find the context surrounding all of those objects. We’re trying to put together a public history here using that material culture through these family objects.”
Once their grant application was funded, Grayzel and Cannon sought out community partners that now include Fort Douglas Military Museum, Hill Aerospace Museum, Historic Wendover Airfield, Hyrum City Museum and Utah Public Radio. They have also reached out to local library systems across the state.
Grayzel said the main aim of the grant is to preserve the information gathered in a digital format.
This is where the idea of a series of community roadshows comes into play. These events are designed to have participants bring any personal wartime objects that will have a booth with digital scanning/photography equipment to record the objects; and an oral history booth to allow war veterans and/or family members to talk about the war object’s story and its context. In addition, various booths at the roadshow will provide information about preserving objects such as textiles, along with resources for archivists, genealogists and historians. A pop-up museum will provide participants the opportunity to feature their objects and histories during the roadshow events.
“We want people to hold these objects that are important to them and their families but we also want to preserve them digitally. We want to preserve the stories around them and we want future students to have access to them. Our aim is to build this living digital archive that the roadshows will help get started, but we see this continuing so that the objects and their stories don’t get lost and can be used. And so others can contribute their objects and stories later.”
The digital archive will be housed at the USU Merrill-Cazier Library and a large part of the grant will go to students and student workers who will help the professors build finding aids for researchers, teachers and the public.
Another generation carries on
As for the book box project, Grayzel said she and Cannon picked Tim O’Brien’s book, “The Things They Carried,” because it is a book that is taught in high school and college curriculums and has become recognized in the scholarly community as an important testimony about the war since it was written by a Vietnam War combat veteran.
Graysel said she and Cannon also went to their USU colleagues in literature and history on how to organize a book discussion group.
Cannon said one war veteran mentioned in a discussion group how they would sing songs as they were marching and doing their drills.
“It was great to learn that because I didn’t have that knowledge,” Cannon said. “It showed that our discussion points were working to connect veterans with the community who haven’t served.”
As a way to highlight the grant project in 2022, organizers are planning a series of books discussions and community roadshows. To learn more, arrange for a book box or see when a roadshow is in your area, please visit: https://www.usu.edu/mountainwest/bringing-war-home
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