After the Civil War, Union veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization with both social and political objectives. In Wisconsin, GAR persuaded the state to create a museum of Civil War memorabilia. The museum opened in 1901 with the expanded mission to also preserve artifacts from the Spanish-American War and any future wars. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum occupied space within the Capitol Building for nearly one hundred years, reflecting its political clout. It was closely aligned with the Republican Party, though any Union Army or Navy vet could claim affiliation. After World War II the museum was transferred to the Wisconsin Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and sought to celebrate the contributions of all Wisconsin veterans. In 1993 the museum moved across the street from the Capitol to designated exhibit space.
Michael Telzrow has been director since 2010, though he worked at Wisconsin Veterans Museum as a graduate student. Michael is a Coast Guard veteran and longtime military history buff. Prior to leading WVM, he worked in a variety of museum settings, including Director of the National Railroad Museum.
“Our challenge is how to make the veteran’s experience relevant thirty years from now. What happened after World War II, when being a veteran was an almost universal experience, won’t happen again. The numbers of veterans is down; fewer people have direct connection to veterans.
“We are in the process of developing a new museum concept that will expand our space by a third and tell the veterans’ story in a different way. Now, our museum is chronological, from the Civil War through the Gulf Wars. What we want to capture are the universal elements of the soldier experience. There is a common path most veteran’s experience. They are citizens who undergo core training to become a soldier. Then they receive specialized training and are sent somewhere, often far from home, where they engage in activities that are completely different from their previous life. This often includes combat, and culminates in a homecoming. It is a pattern of passages. Not all experiences are alike: the particulars of a World War II soldier and a Vietnam soldier and an Iraqi soldier are not the same, but the passages are similar.
How will we live tomorrow?
“A place like the Wisconsin Veterans Museum is important for two reasons. First, we have a moral obligation to remember veteran’s service in a way that is meaningful. Second, we play an important role in the civic values of our nation. This museum is a repository of our shared achievements. If we lose connection to the past, we lose the glue that connects us. Otherwise, we are just people sharing space.
“We order our lives through memories. That’s how human’s act.”