Community Connection

Curated Words Inspire Military Family Museum Exhibit

by Terri Barnes

Outside the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center (MAMF) in Tijeras, New Mexico, museum director and army spouse Circe Olson Woessner waits to welcome a fellow military spouse. Novelist and navy spouse Andria Williams and her family—stationed in Colorado—are on their way, stopping by the museum on a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Circe spots their Colorado license plates and waves as Andria and her family arrive, welcoming them to the museum. Originally a family home, the stucco structure is an apt location for such an homage. Thousands of artifacts donated by military veterans and families have traveled the world before coming to rest in this organically-grown museum in the high desert.

Daughter of a veteran as well as a military spouse and parent of a service member, Circe founded the museum in 2011, while her son was serving in Iraq. Exhibits honor military children, women veterans, military spouses of past generations, and many other facets of the military family experience.

Andria and her family of five are on a mission to see the museum and its newest exhibit, Together We Serve, which features the words of military spouse writers and authors.

Circe envisioned Together We Serve as a way to represent the experiences of twenty-first-century military spouses. Circe and museum special project manager Caroline LeBlanc, a military veteran, spouse, and poet, wanted to include written words in the exhibit. Months before Andria’s visit, Circe and Caroline asked Andria to tap into her connections among literary military spouses, seeking thoughtful words about military life.

On a visit to the the Museum of the American Military Family and Learning Center, navy spouse and author Andria Williams reads a copy of her book, The Longest Night, part of an exhibit about military spouses at the museum.

On a visit to MAMF, navy spouse and author Andria Williams pulls out a copy of her book, The Longest Night, now part of a museum exhibit about military spouses.

Andria is the author of The Longest Night, a novel about a military wife in the 1960s. She is also the editor of Military Spouse Book Review, which regularly features military spouse writers and their work. Andria enthusiastically enlisted the military spouses in her writing community. Circe also sought out military spouse bloggers for their words about military life. The completed exhibit includes contributions from forty-one individuals and organizations.

Army veteran Dominic Ruiz designed the display—nine poster-sized panels, each with a different theme, such as Communities, Career, and Home. Panels labeled Balconies and Basements represent the highs and lows of military life. Each of the nine panels includes informational text, bordered by appropriate quotes and photos. Another panel lists and thanks contributing individuals, organizations, and sponsors.

The quotes and photos are from husbands and wives from all branches of service, describing the special challenges and achievements of marriage to the military. Seeing the exhibit for the first time, Andria says it feels very familiar.

“It’s so startlingly cozy for me to see the words of writers I know and have come to respect and admire so much over the last five or so years,” she says. “I know many of these books, these poems, very well.”

The display includes these lines from a poem by Marine Corps spouse Lisa Stice, who sums up the irony of a familiar military acronym, also the title of her book, Permanent Change of Station.

Now we understand—
we’re permanently changed.
That can be counted on,
and we change often.

Another panel shares navy spouse Thomas Litchford’s insight into military marriage, an excerpt from his essay in Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom and Strength in Military Life.

(T)he military spouse’s task is to be steadfast and portable … but to say that a military spouse’s role in life is to support a service member implies that the support flows only one way. This is not an accurate picture of most military marriages.

Scanning the exhibit, Andria discovers her own quote, appropriately about connections like those that brought her family to the museum.

Connecting with other military spouses … brought a whole new dimension to my efforts to create personal art with the challenges of a military lifestyle. We are able to support one another, learn about and promote each others’ work and keep up with where we might connect in real life …

On their search for words about military life, Andria and Circe connected with Elva Resa Publishing, which specializes in military family books, such as Stories Around the Table. The Elva Resa team suggested quotes from their books and authors. Along with Thomas Litchford’s words, the exhibit includes quotes from Stories Around the Table coauthors Lisa Smith Molinari, Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito, and Lori Hensic. Elva Resa books on display in the exhibit include Military Spouse Journey by Kathie Hightower and Holly Scherer, Surviving Deployment by Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito, and Sacred Spaces: My Journey to the Heart of Military Marriage by Corie Weathers.

Panels with quotes from military spouses are grouped together under titles such as Home, Communities, and Career.

Panels with quotes from military spouses are grouped together under titles such as Home, Communities, and Career.

Military spouse writers from many other outlets contributed their words as well. Blogger Julie Provost, novelists Siobhan Fallon and Kathleen Rodgers, poets Jehanne Dubrow and Abby Murray, and dozens of others offered quotes about the good, bad, and in-between of military life.

“The carefully chosen words on each panel convey the message so well,” says Circe. “You can feel the anger in some of the quotes, or the irony.” Without these words, she says, “The exhibit could have been very academic and neutral and not very authentic.”

Authenticity—in both word and atmosphere—is evident throughout the museum. The Together We Serve panels are on the walls in the living room and kitchen areas of the museum, which is set up to represent a military family home. Dozens of photos of military members and families line the mantel over the fireplace. A laundry basket holds uniforms from all branches of service and from various eras. Colorful, handmade potholders hang above the stove. Maps show duty stations around the world.

“There’s something about this layering that’s meaningful in an unexpected way,” Andria says. “There’s five or ten of everything you would find in a normal house. It adds impact, because it’s not just my experience, not just one family. It’s part of everyone’s experiences.”

This representation of many levels of experience is continued in the quotes from military spouses, with their various takes on military life.

“By involving people who write in such different styles, we give visitors a lot of information to absorb from different perspectives,” says Circe. “When spouses write about military life—particularly in fiction and poetry—they can tell the truth, without getting censored or worrying about unintended consequences.”

Each room in the museum invites interaction of some kind, from reading to opening drawers, to looking through scrapbooks. Visitors can also contribute their own words and writing by leaving messages on post cards. These become part of the museum collection and can be read by anyone who visits. Over the years, hundreds of cards have been written and left by visitors. Circe reads them all.

The Museum's "Together We Serve" exhibit includes living and kitchen areas representing military family homes with artifacts from many eras. More panels with quotes from military spouses are displayed on the walls.

The museum’s “Together We Serve” exhibit includes living and kitchen areas representing military family homes with artifacts from many eras. More panels with quotes from military spouses are displayed on the walls, describing some of the highs and lows of military life.

Responses to the museum are mostly positive and often emotional, she says.

“We do occasionally get people who come in and get triggered and weep, but most of them say it was a good thing afterward,” she says. “We have a lot of laughs, and generally lots of conversations and dialogue and story-swapping around our kitchen table.”

The purpose behind everything in the house, including the quotes in the new exhibit, is connection. For Circe, this means connection between people with different experiences and those with shared experiences.

“We chose words everyone—civilian and military—would immediately relate to, and then we used quotes to drill down to the meanings for military family members,” she says. “Everyone has worried about a loved one before, maybe not going into combat, but in some situation. Everyone has had a loved one missing from a holiday dinner and can relate to that. Everyone knows how it feels to wait, to pray to hope that your husband, or wife, or neighbor will come home safe. When someone reads a poem or book featured in this exhibit, they first feel the emotions and then apply those emotions to themselves.”

* * *

Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center is located on Historic Route 66:
546B State Highway 333
Tijeras, NM 87059

Hours are Saturday through Wednesday, 10:30 AM – 5 PM or by appointment.
Contact the museum at (505) 504-6830 or info@militaryfamilymuseum.org

Web: MilitaryFamilyMuseum.org
Facebook: /MuseumoftheAmericanMilitaryFamily
More about the museum from Andria Williams on Military Spouse Book Review.

Writers mentioned in this article (listed alphabetically by first name):

Abby Murray
Web: AbbyEMurray.com

Andria Williams
Web: AndriaWilliams.com
Blog: Military Spouse Book Review
Twitter: @Andria816

Caroline LeBlanc
Web: ARoomofHerOwnFoundation.org/Caroline-Leblanc-2

Sacred Spaces: My Journey to the Heart of Military Marriage by Corie WeathersCorie Weathers
Web: CorieWeathers.com
Facebook: /CorieLPC
Twitter: @CorieLPC

Jehanne Dubrow
Web: JehanneDubrow.com

Julie Provost
Blog: SoldiersWifeCrazyLife.com
Facebook: /SoldiersWifeCrazyLife
Twitter: @SoldiersWifeCL

Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito
Web: KarenPavlicin.com
Facebook: /KarenPavlicinFragnito
Twitter: @pavlicin

Kathleen Rodgers
Web: KathleenMRodgers.com
Facebook: /KathleenMRodgers
Twitter: @KathleenMRodger

Lisa Smith Molinari
Web: TheMeatandPotatoesofLife.com
Facebook: /TheMeatandPotatoesofLife
Twitter: @molinariwrites

Lisa Stice
Blog: LisaStice.wordpress.com
Facebook: /LisaSticePoet
Twitter: @LisaSticePoet

Lori Hensic
Twitter: @LHensic

Siobhan Fallon
Web: SiobhanFallon.com
Facebook: /SiobhanFallonAuthor
Twitter: @SiobhanMFallon

Thomas Litchford 
Author bio

Amidst camo-clad stuffed animals, a corner exhibit showcases many books about growing up as a military kid, including "Coloring My Military Life," "Night Catch," and "Seasons of My Military Student."

Amidst camo-clad stuffed animals, a corner exhibit showcases many books about growing up as a military kid, including “Coloring My Military Life,” “Night Catch,” and “Seasons of My Military Student.”

Books mentioned in this article:

Military Spouse Journey: Discover the Possibilities and Live Your Dreams by Kathie Hightower and Holly Scherer
MilitaryFamilyBooks.com,  Amazon.com

Permanent Change of Station by Lisa Stice
Amazon.com

Sacred Spaces: My Journey to the Heart of Military Marriage by Corie Weathers
MilitaryFamilyBooks.com, Amazon.com

Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom, and Strength in Military Life by multiple authors (Elva Resa)
MilitaryFamilyBooks.com, Amazon.com

Surviving Deployment by Karen Pavlicin
MilitaryFamilyBooks.comAmazon.com

The Longest Night by Andria Williams
Amazon.com

Feature photo: MAMF’s “Together We Serve” exhibit includes panels titled Balconies and Basements, with quotes and photos from military spouse writers describing some of the highs and lows of military life.

All photos courtesy of the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center.

Terri Barnes also collects and curates words. She is a contributor to Books Make a Difference magazine, author of the book Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life, and senior editor at Elva Resa Publishing.

Andria Williams and the staff of the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center contributed to this story.

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