For most people, a tank in the front yard would be a cause for alarm, but for the Pennsylvania Military Museum, it’s just another decorating choice.
The museum’s “Tactics and Logistics of Warfare” exhibit features a wide collection of vehicles and weapons that represent the history of the armed services throughout the 20th century, pieces of the past shuttled into the present by the Pennsylvania National Guard and private donors.
Joe Horvath, museum educator, is on the frontline of the military museum’s exhibits and is the interpreter who helps to transform a collection of objects into a cohesive story that spans the Spanish-American War to the present. He has a hand in everything from script development to outreach and public programming; he also serves as the occasional genealogist, curatorial assistant and custodial guide.
Horvath recently talked more about his role and previewed upcoming lectures and this summer’s Boot Camp for Kids.
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Q: After a few false starts, the Pennsylvania Military Museum was finally constructed during the winter of 1967-68 — the height of the Vietnam War. Do you think there was any connection between that climate and the museum finally becoming a reality?
A: Not really. The was still a lot of public support for the war in Vietnam in 1967 and the idea for a museum was around for a long time ... ever since the 28th Division Shrine was started in the early 1920s. The political climate in Harrisburg and support of veterans in positions of power and influence at that time finally released the funds for construction. The wasn’t any mass public protest against the Vietnam War until after the Tet Offensive in 1968, and by that time the museum was already being built.
Q: The museum has a collection of artifacts and relics ranging from arms exhibits to vehicles. Do you have a favorite exhibit or something that has proven especially popular with visitors?
A: “To each their own” is the rule when trying to gauge what exhibits are popular with visitors. Each artifact in the exhibits has its own particular charm and place in the storyline we interpret. I like them all for that reason. We don’t just have a bunch of stuff placed on shelves behind glass; we tell the story of modern warfare as it unfolds in the galleries. People compliment us on the rarity of our objects, the historic films on loop in the galleries, the interpretive text, the gift in the bookstore as well as the cleanliness of our restrooms — to each their own.
Q: Some of these items are donated by the public. What’s the most interesting item you’ve received and why?
A: While several of the vehicles and weapons come from the Pennsylvania National Guard, most of our collections come from private donors. One of the more fascinating artifacts on exhibit isn’t a gun or a vehicle but rather a knitting project. In 1999, Ruth Davis, of Boalsburg, offered us a pair of olive drab socks she knitted as part of a national program called “Knit for Victory” during World War II. Civilians on the home front were encouraged to knit sweaters, socks, gloves, and scarves for refugees and soldiers in their free time.
I went to visit Ruth and her son Rich with a gift agreement in hand and check out the story. One sock was complete while the other was mostly finished except for a very tiny portion of the toe. Three knitting needles were still in place within the toe tip. Rich asked mom why she never finished the second sock since she was so close. She turned to him and said, “The war ended.” I knew right then that we needed that for the museum. It’s a great three-dimensional object that interprets the end of World War II much better than any newspaper headline.
Q: Exhibits in the museum primarily focus on military history between the Spanish-American War and the present. Is there a period that you’re especially interested in or that has had a particular resonance or impact for Pennsylvania ? Why?
A: I find all of the 20th century interesting. World War I through the current Middle Eastern crisis are all connected with commonwealth citizens and industry playing a key roles throughout. The Vietnam period is of particular interest to me since I grew up during that time frame. That war nearly tore the country apart and I remember it all. I attended college in the late ’70s with many returning veterans, and when I volunteered for the service in 1982, we were still training for war in a jungle environment.
Q: Is there something that people would be surprised to know about Pennsylvania’s military history?
A: I think that people would be amazed at the involvement Pennsylvania industry had on military production. Or that the present day Pennsylvania National Guard was fully engaged in both world wars and continued to be deployed to hot spots and humanitarian missions from the 1990s to the present.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for people to have a firm grasp of military history?
A: History cannot be isolated into political, social, psychological, economic or military nooks. To fully comprehend one you need to understand the others and how they fit into the larger picture. The military aspect is the most physically devastating, representing a dysfunction in the others. Hopefully we can learn from our mistakes.
Q: The museum has a few events coming up this month, including a lecture by retired Air Force Sgt. Maj. Bob Baker, who spent time as a German prisoner of war during World War II. What are you most excited for people to learn about his story?
A: How often do people get to hear a first-hand account of someone who was shot out of the sky and became a prisoner of war? This isn’t “Hogan’s Heroes” on MeTV ... this is real history. I want people to come with questions. Lots of questions.
Q: Boot Camp for Kids will begin in early August. How can kids enroll and exactly how much punishment should they expect?
A: Our annual Boot Camp for Kids is scheduled for Aug. 1 and we are now accepting enlistments that may be downloaded from our website. It’s a day program for youths ages 8 to 13 staffed by prior service veteran volunteers acting as drill instructors. The kids are divided into three platoons attending to three training cycles including marching/military etiquette, drill and physical training. If paying attention to detail, communicating with each other and working together as a team is viewed as “punishment,” then those kids should stay home with their PlayStation.
Q: How else can people get involved with the Pennsylvania Military Museum?
A: State budgets have been pinched for several years and history museums are a cultural investment which have felt that pinch. One of the best ways people can support the museum is to become a member of the Friends and come out to support our programming. We have a full listing of events including lectures, movies, living history encampments, arts entertainment, children’s programming and more at www.pamilmuseum.org. Our Facebook page holds a virtual library of movies and pictures from past events.
People who cannot physically attend but wish to support in spirit can make a monetary contribution to the Friends of the Pennsylvania Military Museum, a 501(c)3 organization. An opportunity to maximize a gift will be to contribute through the May 5-6 Centre Gives Annual Appeal hosted by the Centre Foundation. Great public support helps us keep history alive.