Intro to Public History Exhibit Label Draft: The Personal and Social Function of War Mementoes

I’m not sure why I had such a difficult time writing this exhibit label, but I’ve finally put together a (too long) first draft. My topic is “The Personal and Social Function of War Mementoes,” referencing the Cossack sword and (I think?) the letter from the women of Ragusa.

Many of us collect souvenirs: A postcard from the Grand Canyon, a ticket stub from a World Series baseball game, a seashell from the beach where we spent a lovely summer day. These objects help remind us of a time that we don’t want to forget.

Sailors on the U.S.S. Olympia were far away from home for long periods of time. They experienced events, both positive and negative, that they wanted to remember and share with others once they finally returned home. One way they could do this was by collecting mementoes. To be able to touch a Cossack sword, or show a loved one a letter from the people of Ragusa, was a way to commemorate where they had been and what they had seen in their travels. Unlike their memories, these objects would never fade away.

To me, this seems kind of boring and not particularly evocative. Part of the issue is the sword’s foggy provenance: did the sailor acquire it while fighting the Bolsheviks in Russia, or while aiding refugees in the Adriatic? The origination document is incorrect in stating that the U.S.S. Olympia was in the Adriatic from 1918-1920. It was actually deployed in Russia in 1918, and then made its way to the Adriatic (on two separate journeys) from 1919 to 1921. The distinction between acquiring the sword in a trade from an ally in wartime or from a Cossack refugee seems pretty large to me and I’m trying to address the theme without getting into the details. Therefore all I can state for certain is that this particular sailor acquired both items while a crewman on the Olympia and brought them home as mementoes.

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