Military museum and library curator wants to preserve veterans' stories
As a curator of Chicago's Pritzker Military Museum & Library, James Brundage of Crystal Lake often hears regrets from visitors who had veterans in their families. They wish their late grandparents, parents or other loved ones who served in the military had shared more of their stories while they still could.
"Our hope is to get younger veterans who are still here to tell their stories," Brundage said.
To make sure similar stories are not lost, the museum collects veterans' oral histories and preserves their donated artifacts.
"We're always focused on telling the citizen-soldier's story: how one person's story can fit into larger stories of military history -- the larger narrative," Brundage said.
Brundage said having veterans on staff is vital to help build empathy and rapport with former and current service members who might be reluctant or nervous to share their military stories. Since the museum was founded only in 2003, it always is seeking to build its collections and archives.
"That way, we can pair the physical objects with the veteran's own voice or testimony," Brundage said. "We're getting materials that can help contextualize, and for other folks to visualize, that we can then incorporate into the exhibits or programs that we do."
Brundage enlisted in the Marines out of high school in Connecticut in 2003 and served as an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines.
Already a fan of military history, Brundage thought about the context of his work while he was deployed to places such as Ramadi, Iraq.
"I recognized that what I was doing was essentially part of history as it was being created," Brundage said. "That was something important and something that I valued, so when I got out and went back to school I knew I wanted to work with history."
After leaving active duty, Brundage attended the University of Connecticut and earned degrees in history with an advanced focus on early North American history. He moved to the Chicago area to be closer to his wife's family and later was hired as curator of the museum and library in 2019.
"I got lucky," Brundage said. "With this job, it pairs the two things that I love: narrative storytelling through exhibits and curatorial work with my own background and interest in military history."
Recently, Brundage helped curate the exhibit "Drawn to Combat: The Art of Bill Mauldin." It commemorates last year's centennial of the birth of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times editorial cartoonist who rose to fame during World War II with his beloved soldier characters of Willie and Joe.
Brundage also is involved with the organization's research and archival center being built on 288 acres in Somers, Wisconsin.
"The initiative behind this new building is to give us an improved and much larger storage facility that we can grow into," Brundage said.
Along with extra gallery space to augment the Chicago location, the Wisconsin site also will feature a Cold War memorial.
As part of the day-to-day operations of the museum and library, Brundage emphasizes the need to collect military histories so the knowledge can be passed to future generations.
"It sounds cliché, but we really do want to hear from anyone who served," Brundage said. "For all the millions of people who served, everyone's going to have a different experience."
• Do you know of veterans helping other veterans? Share your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.