Driving through Missoula, Montana, I was fortunate to be shown around the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula by Ted Hughes, the Curator of Collections. My visit (and entire experience) was so refreshing and uniquely surprising. Not only did the museum have great exhibits, but the grounds housed relocated (and original) historic buildings that were fantastic.
Every building I entered had knowledgeable volunteers on staff who were enthusiastic about the local history. During my exploration, I was graced with a fabulous reenactment of Missoula’s town co-founder, Christopher Higgins (1830-1899) - performed by the Museum’s previous Director. Additionally, I was given a personal point of view of an early 1900s fire engine that continuously broke down during his childhood parades of the 1970s.
Fort Missoula was established in 1877 as a permanent military post to defend Western Montana settlers from Native American threats.
From 1888 - 1898, the fort was home to the Buffalo Soldiers (25th infantry regiment, Bicycle Corps). This unit tested the practicalities of bicycle traveling by soldiers through the conduction of several training rides in the area. One training ride even took them as far as St. Louis, Missouri in 1897 clocking in over 1900 miles.
Fast forward to World War II when Fort Missoula was an internment camp for over 2200 Italians and Japanese nationals, this museum packed plenty of unique history in one visit.
As I was shown the museum and grounds, I decided to focus this review on one exhibit in particular. Located in the Heath Gallery, this is the newest exhibit for the museum and one I would recommend visiting, should you be in the area.
No Enemy Movement Detected: The Vietnam War through the eyes of a Frenchtown Marine is on show from February 2019 to July 2020. The exhibit highlights Missoula’s local war hero, Leon Howard, and his personal experience on his tour of duty during the Vietnam War.
The exhibit contains a range of artifacts that Leon sent home or brought back from his tour, including behind-the-scenes-photographs, booby traps, uniforms, equipment, Cambodian bow-and arrows and so much more. With over 200 donated photographic images, visitors are able to experience an in-depth view of daily marine life in Vietnam during this tumultuous time in war-torn Southeast Asia.
The curation of this exhibit gives visitors a look into Leon’s personal experience through photographs and artifacts, but deftly steps back and allows visitors to understand the full, complicated picture of the Vietnam War and what it meant to the local community and the wider world.
In the middle of the gallery is a designated space that is both secluding and inviting - with a sofa and TV set - as if you were sitting in a cozy living room at home. I can assume this was strategically set up to entice people in and invite them to explore a space dedicated to war induced PTSD.
Numerous books relating to wartime PTSD are scattered on the coffee table to read at your leisure. The walls hold images of Greek pottery art, directly linking Homer’s Iliad story to PTSD symptoms based on the book Achillies in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by Dr. Jonathan Shay.
Also in this room are copies of art pieces by Otto Dix showing his own interpretation and experience of WWI. The room indicates that both literature and art can be used as methods to approach and manage combat trauma through expression. This part of the exhibit highlights the fact that PTSD, while only recently named, has in fact been around for centuries, if not thousands of years.
This ‘room’ addresses the stigma behind PTSD brilliantly. Not only does it highlight the history and frequency of combat trauma but it also encourages and provides - those that need it - the opportunity of seeking help.
I felt the exhibit’s approach to a very sensitive and widespread issue was superbly executed. Not only did it show a soldier’s own journey through a pivotal and traumatizing experience that would trigger his own PTSD, but the exhibit established a ‘safe space’ for others who have experienced similar events and want to learn more information. In this ‘safe space’ the exhibit has provided all the tools and resources that might assist those on their own PTSD journey or those affected by it.
Should you choose to visit, I highly recommend a walk around the grounds to see the beautifully preserved historical buildings in addition to visiting the exhibits in this intriguing Montana Fort Museum.Location: 3400 Captain Rawn Way