It is the largest most involved exhibit the Hill Aerospace Museum has ever done. That’s how Scott Wirz, museum director, describes the Vietnam War exhibit which will officially open to the public Sept. 22.
Nathan Myers, museum curator, excited for the exhibit’s grand opening, said, “I think we’ve tried to take as much time and care to tell the veterans stories and convey them to the public — that level of trust on their end with us is that we would take care of their story, much like we’ve tried to take care of the exhibit and the artifacts included.”
Myers has a rather unique perspective on the project with previous experience with the National Park Service, serving as a curator technician at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the items left at the wall by visitors there.
The Hill exhibit cost more than $300,000, the bulk of which was funded through three grants of $100,00 each from the Weber County Recreation, Arts, Museums and Parks program. The Aerospace Heritage Foundation of Utah, with Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Mark Reynolds, as president, paved the way for the funding while board member Bob Weiss wrote and submitted the grant applications. Hill Aerospace Foundation vice president, Jack Price, coordinated exhibit construction on the museum’s behalf.
A key part of the exhibit includes a reproduction of a cell from the Hanoi Hilton, based on the memories of Farmingon resident Jay Hess, a former prisoner of war. He and three of his cell mates from the war have been invited to a private opening of the exhibit. Hess toured the exhibit in its early stages and indicated that the cell was right on, but it didn’t look dirty enough or smell nearly bad enough.
Enter contractor Brad Smith and Heaven Richards. While Jerry Pulsipher, exhibit designer, hired Smith to build the cell, Smith employed Richards to help make the cell look dirtier.
“Heaven made hell,” said Wirz. “I find that somewhat ironic.”
Museum officials later revealed that in talking with the contractor, they learned that Richards father had served in Vietnam and was able to see the display shortly before he died. “It was very emotional for him,” Smith said.
Hess shared a small part of his POW experiences at a Warrior Call held at Hill AFB in May and conferred regularly with museum representatives about the display.
“A tightening of his face and a much more guarded look came over him the last time he was shown the cell,” said Wirz. “We took him back to the POW cell and with that, everything came back. His whole demeanor changed; he was on guard and his expression changed. That told us more than anything that we got it right, although he said it was still too clean, it didn’t smell bad enough.”
Myers, who fine-tuned the rough sketches and initial concepts provided by former curators Tom and Mary Hill, hit the ground running nearly two years ago, providing guidance as he came from his previous job. “I was already conceptualizing (the exhibit),” he said.
“New aircraft panels have been designed and installed to better tell the stories of those individual aircraft’s function in the Vietnam War and the role Hill Air Force Base played in support of those functions,” said Myers.
Another important aspect is toward the end of the exhibit in which the names of all Utahns killed in action (KIA) or missing in action (MIA) are mounted on the wall. Plans are ongoing for a final touch screen that will allow visitors to call up the names of those who served in the war and at any point more names can be added. The database, searchable by name, unit or other parameters, will allow for additions. Official forms will be available for submission at the museum for friends and family who wish to see their veterans names and information made available. A short biography is also part of the form.
Both Myers and Wirz report that the exhibit has brought expected and unexpected reactions from visitors as reported by the volunteers at the exhibit. Veterans who come through share their experiences, sometimes almost reticent at first, but in a way that makes the listeners sure that the visitors’ children or other family members likely have never heard these stories.
Myers thinks that the exhibit is an ideal way for family members to find a way to learn about their family members’experiences. When asked about the unpopularity of the war, Myers replied, “I tried to incorporate some of that into the exhibit as well. It would be disingenuous to not do that.” He did research on the time in Utah and found a couple of large protests in Salt Lake City.
A large part of the exhibit focuses on the work done at Hill Air Force Base. “We think of Vietnam as a conflict that took place in Southeast Asia, but one of the things that our curator (Nathan Myers) really worked hard on with the base historian and others was to document the Hill role through the Vietnam conflict,” said Wirz. “We have people here who may not have been in combat but their contributions to the war were incredibly impressive. They were vital and we hope that those people come out and visit the exhibit as well. We want their efforts to be recognized.”
Myers reports that there have been visitors who have come in and spent an hour, two hours with the exhibit, as it was being worked on through its stages ofpreparation. As curator that was especially gratifying to him.
“I’ve seen more people engaging with the volunteers near the exhibit, many of whom served during that time, because they want to talk about their experiences,” Myers said. “They aren’t just simply walking through. They’re looking at this as an opportunity to open up and experience what they are seeing, which is great. That’s essentially what you want from a museum.”