In Their Own Words...A Veteran's Museum

By Niki Carlson Guest Contributor War exerts an intense impact on culture, yet in contemporary America unless an individual has served in the armed forces in an overseas conflict few know the trauma and transformative capacity of war. The last ma...

By Niki Carlson

Guest Contributor

War exerts an intense impact on culture, yet in contemporary America unless an individual has served in the armed forces in an overseas conflict few know the trauma and transformative capacity of war. The last major war on Minnesota soil was the Dakota War of 1862. American wars of the twentieth century have been located on overseas landscapes.

A new Minnesota museum based in Perham, In Their Own Words (ITOW), will be a place to witness the veteran experience and resulting alterations to rural community fabric.

As a collaboration between local veterans and the History Museum of East Otter Tail County, ITOW is built around an archive of oral histories, documented via professional video and audio recording. It will be a living archive for local individuals who will participate in the museum as volunteers, speakers, and leaders.


Unlike many veteran museums, ITOW will emphasize the impact war made on the lives of those who served and those who remained at home. By leaving and returning transformed, or seeing a loved one depart, memories of war and life afterwards leave traces of wars effects on the American cultural landscape, unfolding as part of our common heritage.

Museum director Lina Belar brought in a student planner through the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) to elaborate existing exhibits and research ways to continually engage the community in humanities based programs. Told in their own words, and safeguarding a profound aspect of American heritage, ITOW is a roadmap from where we came and a venue to consider where we may go.

For many veterans, the decision to talk about what happened comes after fifty to sixty years. During the interim the feeling of war is simply too raw; discussions occur between veterans themselves, if at all. At ITOW, veterans become part of a new group who are ready to share their stories and lives.

Mark Lehman is a Vietnam veteran and member of the VFW. Lehman sees school age youth as a primary audience for the new museum. He visits schools to teach about flag etiquette and to talk to kids about what I went through. VFW donors do want people to understand their sacrifices, but moreover the hope to convey the true impact of war on themselves and the circumstances that led them to joining the military.

Syd MacLean, of the local VFW, comments Its beautiful, a very positive thing for the community. We hope in 20 years someone can come out, look up their grandfather and learn something about where they came from.

Perham is approximately 190 miles northwest of Minneapolis. The town of 2,700 people is in a geographically and economically unique situation. Where many rural towns struggle to meet the demands of the global economy, Perhams progressive attitude and community spirit nurture a healthy arts culture and industrial year round employment base. Transport corridors Highway 10 and the Burlington Northern Railway line maintain strong historic linkages throughout the Midwest. East Otter Tail Countys 1,200 lakes draw tourists to the area in summer months. The museums board of directors hopes its presence will build stronger connection among these groups and cultivate regional relationships in western Minnesota.

Perceptions of infrastructural deficiencies and poor urban connections can be a drawback for any development endeavor in a rural location. Yet these communities are often noted for providing enhanced quality of life.

John Thorup, Perham Chamber of Commerce director, is enthusiastic about the community, People come from 700 miles to enjoy Perham! They love the uniqueness and lakes. Thorup is developing a regional partnership plan that would turn the county conceptually into a city. The arts are an integral part of the region, the more arts, the better, says Thorup.


Experts contend that cities maintain a competitive advantage by generating and retaining talent; the arts are likewise a key component in the quality of life that many young workers in the knowledge economy demand. Creative industries, whether folk arts, media or visual arts, music, heritage programs, or design, rely on uniqueness of place to thrive and often deliver unexpected employment benefits to a locale, especially part-time and post-retirement. Activities that build upon the strengths of a region breed successful development in many arenas, including tourism and hospitality. Regional partnerships form another backbone of the museum outreach potential.

ITOW will play a part in cultivating the distinctive character of Perham and harnessing its unique assets to interact with the global economy.

Statewide and at the national level the museum is already garnering support for the innovativeness of its concept. In 2000 the United States Congress created the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Public law 106-380 received unanimous support from the U.S. Congress. It reflects an awareness that oral history collections and other material artifacts from recent wars is a means to learning about the role war plays in America. Peter Bartis at the Library of Congress is eager to partner with ITOW, 2,000 vets are passing away every day, and many of these from rural America. We do not have much historical information on the lives of these people.

Lina Belar hopes the museum will generate new knowledge by welcoming researchers, developing materials for some programs, including those that they can take out on the road to show, and eventually creating publications.

A 12,000 square foot, state of the art Main Street facility is one way to attract a broad audience. Inside, the exhibits are designed to provide sensory experience through video documentaries and interviews as well as audio commentaries.

Re-dramatizations of events leading up to and during the wars of the 20th century and interactive Identity Kiosks are other ways the museum will enhance the visitor experience. One gallery area seats 250 people and will host meetings, lectures and traveling exhibits.

The challenge for long-term connectivity is to become a learning destination rather than simply a tourist attraction. Local schools are keen to engage museum content as a learning opportunity for the student population.

Tamara Uselman, Superintendent of schools, comments, Schools are trying to teach going to primary sources for research rather than relying on a single text. The museum is a way to teach conflict as something to learn about.


As the student researcher for ITOW, I had little inkling of the impact war has had on the people of the United States when I began the work in early fall. I believe that for people like myself ITOW is critical. Kirk van Dorn of Archival Film Productions leads the oral history collection. van Dorn explains that the experience has been phenomenal for him, especially when he realized that his daughters did not know how much they did not know about the lives of veterans who served on behalf of the United States.

It follows that program development revolves closely around personal narratives, rather than the wars themselves, exploring internal transformations caused by living through war. For example, a video clip depicts a Vietnam veteran describing his soldiering experience as pushing the envelope to the edge of the emotions.

Programs might take ITOW on the road, to sites of protest or conflict to look at tender sides of the Minnesota landscape, such as visiting Dakota War sites from the perspective of Native American descendants.

Programs grounded in the humanities, (art history, philosophy, history, anthropology, and so on) open the mind to connections and allow flexible interpretation in a way that rewards creativity and encourages questioning. David Chang, history professor at the University of Minnesota, points out that while to tell stories in the veterans words is essential, if you take it at their own words, you might miss some of the critical thinking behind the event.

Heritage is key to a societys integrity and understanding of itself. When we listen to the veteran story, wars of the United States enter our collective understanding of the circumstances that gave rise to American identity and decisions of today. Doubled with creative thinking through the humanities about the nature of war, a dynamic, self-examining and creative response may emerge.

Dorothy Wacker, a Korean War vet talks about the prolonged presence of American soldiers in South Korea in her recording, We still have troops over there, the war never ended, theres never really been a truce. So we still have troops over there on that 38th parallel walking yet, continually. I think there is something like 8,000 over there patrolling.

The 38th parallel is a reminder of the constant presence of war in the human experience. At ITOW, the voices of veterans will reach a public who bear traces of wars and can begin to look at the world, for even a brief interlude, through the eyes of a veteran.

Editors Note: This feature-length article by Niki Lee Carlson followed her work last fall as a research assistant at the History Museum of East Otter Tail County. It was published last fall in a Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs magazine.


The article offers a unique perspective of the Perham community as well as the Veterans Museum project--from an outsider who lived and worked here for several months.

Carlson is a Master of Science in Science Technology and Environmental Policy; Landscape Architecture; and a research assistant at the U of M Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. She can be contacted at:

To learn more about the In Their Own Words museum project:

Phone: 218-346-7676

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