Spring 2017 Corps Review | Back
By Samantha Riggin VT’16, Corps museum curator
Museums traditionally are full of interesting and visually pleasing artifacts and art.
The future Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets museum will synthesize time-tested exhibition standards with technologically advanced presentations to be relevant to a variety of visitors. It is a delicate line to walk to please all the museum’s potential visitors. Diligent planning between me, the museum task force, the commandant and the cadets, informs the strategy.
Critical to the museum’s mission is the preservation and presentation of the lives and accompanying stories from our alumni. I have been working to interview as many of our Old Guard as possible. The interviews are fascinating, and at times astounding.
During a five-hour interview in December 2016, Col. James Dinwiddie ’45, a Vietnam-era Silver Star recipient, recounted some of his memories from his decades-long service in the U.S. Air Force.
Dinwiddie told me a harrowing tale of a failed attempt to save a downed pilot in the dense, sniper-infested jungle of Vietnam. Dinwiddie said he considered it “the most stressful day of my life,” and he was overcome with emotion during the interview. I, too, was left emotionally drained for a couple of days, but I wouldn’t trade that day for anything.
This is only one of several interviews I have documented this academic year, and more are on the horizon. As the Corps’ museum curator, I am charged with assembling and preserving the history of the Corps for posterity. It is a challenge that is evolving within the museum field. Curators of today must find ways to marry the stories with the objects, providing meaningful and engaging history. While museum visitors still favor traditional, object-centered forms of storytelling, without corresponding historical background — such as Dinwiddie’s story — all you have is a display of “stuff.”
The amount of research it takes to uncover the histories of the photographs, documents, and old uniforms within the Corps museum’s collection provides plenty of food for thought for me. Not every object within the collection is “rare” or particularly historical in its own right, but it is valuable within the narrative of the Corps’ history.
It is easy for me, as it is for other curators, to become engrossed in one item only to be pulled in a difference direction by another item that grabs my attention. The trick is to find the meaning beneath the surface of the object — one that often includes life and death scenarios, moments of heroism, heartbreak, and honor.
Going through the Corps’ collection in an effort to equip the museum with objects and oral histories that provide critical, thought-provoking exhibits often leads me astray. I call this “getting lost in the rabbit hole,” the delightful abyss that researchers can find themselves after succumbing to the mind-boggling twists and turns in a research process. It is common for me to begin my day on one project, only to find that I wandered off onto another, equally compelling journey.
The green jumper pictured is a great example of this. It is one of the earliest incarnations of the female Corps uniform, and it has been taunting me as of late, begging me to find out about its former owner. I have no doubt that this seemingly unremarkable, and some would say unflattering, green jumper is anything but mundane. It surely relates the early struggles of women in the Corps, and I wouldn’t doubt that interviews that I have scheduled with some of the first members of L Squadron may be just as riveting and emotional as that of Dinwiddie’s.
The museum collection continues to grow, and I relish the challenges that face me. My goal, core to the mission of the museum, is to tell the story of the Corps of Cadets. By carefully researching our current holdings and interviewing as many alumni as time permits, I am con dent that the results will be a true reflection of our history. It will be rocky at some points and awe-inspiring at others.
I hope you’ll support this mission, and when you have time, visit the temporary museum in Newman Library to take your own trip down into the rabbit hole.