How does one curate an exhibit about the most divisive conflict in America since the Civil War? On October 4, The Vietnam War: 1945-1975 will open as an expansive exhibit at the New-York Historical Society in New York City. While we are still taking in the 18-hour PBS series The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, we look forward to seeing the museum’s approach. Curator Marci Reaven and her colleagues combed archives and museums across America and within Vietnam to bring new artifacts, newly discovered objects, and even new creations. Research is intrinsic to a scholarly project, and it turns out, social interactions and connections are a gold mine for curators as well.
Interview with Curator
From a chance meeting with Vietnam War veterans at the National Archives in Washington, DC, to commissioning a work from a Vietnamese octogenarian veteran and artist, to a loan from the Vietnam Graffiti Project, curator Marci Reaven shares behind-the-scenes stories about creating the exhibit The Vietnam War: 1945-1970. Follow along with the transcript below.
The New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West at West 77th St., New York, NY 10024) presents The Vietnam War: 1945‒1975 from Oct. 4, 2017 to April 28, 2017. Interpretive displays, digital media, artwork, artifacts, photographs, and documents in the exhibit occupies over 3,000 square feet and will provide an enlightening account of the causes, progression, and impact of the war. Spanning the duration of U.S. involvement in Indochina from 1945 to 1975, the narrative will incorporate perspectives that covers both the home front and the war front.
Marci Reaven is vice president of history exhibits at the New-York Historical Society and curator of The Vietnam War: 1945‒1975. She also curated the New-York Historical exhibitions Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion (2014), WWII & NYC (2012), and Nueva York (2010). Prior to joining the New-York Historical Society, Dr. Reaven served as the managing director of City Lore, where she co-founded the Place Matters project and co-authored the guidebook, Hidden New York: A Guide to Places that Matter. She holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from NYU.
Marci Reaven Interview Transcript
Welcome to this THIRTEEN.org interview that asks, “How do you curate an exhibit about the most divisive conflict in American history since the Civil War?”
I’m Christina Knight, digital producer for THIRTEEN, New York City’s PBS station. We’re currently broadcasting The Vietnam War, an epic 18-hour documentary by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
At the same time, 27 blocks north of us, an epic exhibition titled The Vietnam War: 1945 – 1975 will soon open at the New York Historical Society. The society is the oldest museum in New York and its prior exhibitions have included Grant and Lee in War in Peace, and World War II And New York City.
Our guest today is Marci Reaven, vice president of history exhibits at the New York Historical Society and curator of The Vietnam War 1945 –1975. She holds a Ph.D. in history from NYU. Marci, thank you very much for joining us today.
–Thank you. Happy to be here.
Marci, once you got the go-ahead for this Vietnam War exhibit that spans 30 years, What were the first steps you took?
Well first we had to try to figure out what our story would be [and] what kinds of objects and images we would bind or use to tell that story. So really, the first thing we start to do is read.
There’s an incredible amount of material in the world now that’s been written about both the war and also the response of the American public on the home front. So we did a lot of reading and we also watched a lot of films, and I’m talking about documentary and fiction movies; all of which helped to either inform us or give us a sense for the time.
We also looked at our own collections. The New York Historical Society is a little stronger in 19th-century objects, but we do have 20th-century objects and we did have some pretty wonderful things that we could bring into the show. And then we also looked into other museums both in the United States and in Vietnam to see what kinds of objects we could find, and how they were telling the story. All of this information goes into the hopper and we try to work our way out from there.
Are there any materials that have become available recently that you remember referencing, whether that’s official documents or memoirs?
There has been a lot of new scholarship on the war in these last years, especially as younger American scholars have begun to learn Vietnamese and actually work in the Vietnamese archives, and as Vietnamese scholars have been doing the same. We benefited by that work and we benefited by the works Florentine films [the production company of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick] has done to create their incredible series on the war.
Those new perspectives helped us more in terms of shaping the story than in actually providing new objects. Although in the process of identifying the story and figuring out what angles we were going to take, we also were introduced to individuals who shared materials with us. So most of the objects in our exhibit that come from individuals will be exhibited for the first time.
We’ll see badges and helmets and memorabilia in the exhibit. What are some of the ways that you connected with veterans and individuals?
Every new exhibit that we work on introduces us to a whole new world of incredible people who have been who are linked to that world for one reason or another. With this Vietnam War exhibit, we were looking to meet military veterans. We were looking to meet female volunteers who had gone to Vietnam as nurses or recreational aids. We were looking to meet people who had been really active in the anti-war movement here in the United States. So how we meet them is one of the incredible surprises and joys of doing this kind of work.
Sometimes it’s just through pure serendipity. Early on when we went to the National Archives in Washington D.C.–—which is an amazing national repository of American history on every topic and there are huge Vietnam War collections there—we were busily searching for, and scanning photographs, and this small group of veterans approached us. They were also there doing research. They had been members of the infantry and also the Signal Corps and we hit it off, and they ended up linking us to new film footage that we’d never seen before.
They also introduced us to individuals who had objects. One of them is a cover to a helmet that was worn by Salvador Gonzales—a New Yorker known as Sal Gonzales—who was in Vietnam in ’69 [and] ’70 and he fought in the battle of Hamburger Hill, which is a very well-known battle—and a really traumatic battle—and this helmet cover was with him when he was fighting. It’s still covered with all of the messages and sayings that were going through his mind. Lots of guys used their helmet covers as canvases. It’s a kind of wonderful window into Sal’s world at that time and will be on display.
I’d like to read one of the quotes on Sal’s helmet. It says “We are the unwilling led by the unqualified doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.” That’s just one of many quotes you see on this helmet. Are these things that Sal wrote at the time he was serving, or afterwards?
Messages on Sal’s helmet cover are all things that he wrote at the time.
It’s so interesting to think about these helmet canvases and the Zippo lighters; these items that the soldiers carried with them that were used for personal expression in an otherwise very top-down military organization. They were a window into what these young guys were thinking who were fighting in incredibly difficult conditions.
Another object that belonged to a female volunteer that we met through our adviser Phil Napoli, is a hat from Penni Evans. Penni was a recreational aid known as a “Donut Dolly.”
I don’t know if you know the answer to this, but does “Donut Dolly” have anything to do with donuts?
Yes, the term “Donut Dolly,” which comes from the World War II era, does have something to do with donuts. These were young women—volunteers—who went overseas generally to Europe during World War II, who would serve coffee and donuts to the servicemen at recreational centers that had been set up by the U.S. military.
And while they weren’t serving donuts in Vietnam—it was very different weather and donuts didn’t hold up so well—somehow the term continued. They were actually Red Cross recreational aides.
Penni’s hat is adorned with all kinds of emblems that she accumulated while she was in Vietnam traveling from small bases to large bases throughout the country. Some of them she picked up as souvenirs.
Some of the emblems that visitors will see on these hats were given to her by guys she met while she was there. Some of these emblems are peace signs. Some of them are unit medals. I’ve not heard from anybody that there was anybody controlling what one could put on one’s hat and what one could write on one’s helmet cover, or engrave on one’s Zippo. I’m sure that it depended on what unit you were in and also what year of the war you were there.
Which part of the exhibit has the best behind-the-scenes story?
One large item that we have in the exhibit is an eight-man bunk unit that comes from a troopship named the General Nelson M. Walker. So this was one of the troopships that would carry about 5,000 young men at a time over to Vietnam in the first years of the war. Most guys in those first years went by troopship, not by plane. These are the same kinds of ships that would take men to the Korean War and to World War II. We got this bunk unit from a little project called the Vietnam Graffiti Project which is run by a couple named Art and Lee Beltrone, former Long Islanders. Art Beltrone was in the Marine Reserves during the Vietnam War. Art, over the years, became an expert in appraising military artifacts.
He was asked to work on the fiction movie The Thin Red Line. He helped the production designer find authentic artifacts for the World War II movie. In connection with that, the production designer invited Art to come see this mothballed troopship which was in Norfolk Virginia. This troopship was supposed to have been wonderfully preserved because the maritime administration had decided to keep it intact in order for it to serve potentially as emergency housing in the case of a natural disaster like a hurricane. They couldn’t believe what they found. It was as the last man off the ship closed the door, that was it, and the rest of the ship kind of stayed in suspended animation for the next 50 years.
The thing that first caught Art’s eye were canvas bunks which had been completely covered with graffiti. These bunks are four high. Most of the men were sleeping with a canvas bunk almost directly above their heads and they were on this ship for three weeks and they were incredibly bored. They were incredibly seasick. They were most likely scared, and at minimum, anxious. And so again, as we talked earlier about canvasses for personal expression, Art decided then and there that these things should be preserved [and] that it would be terrible if they were tossed and we would lose all of this history. They went to the maritime administrator who had been responsible for keeping these mothballed ships intact. And it turns out that administrator was a Vietnam veteran himself.
He immediately agreed that these were things that should be preserved and they preserved canvases but they also decided to preserve some of the bunk frames which are the ones that were showing. And a lot of personal objects that they just found on the ship.
Art and Lee Beltrone donated a number of the canvases to museums all over the country and they created an exhibit which has toured all over the country and they started learning about all of the individuals whose graffiti covered these bunks, and they have found a lot of people who had been passengers. And they’ve done interviews with a lot of people and they’re still trying to learn more because they have not learned about everybody.
One of the canvases that we’ll exhibit has graffiti on it by someone named Johnny. “Johnny from New York, ‘The city so nice, they named it twice.'”
So we’re hoping that we might find out who Johnny was. It’s happened in other situations where people have seen the graffiti on the bunk. We would be very interested if the Johnny who wrote on that bunk in, say 1967, happens to come to the exhibit, we hope he comes forward and lets us know about his experience.
Johnny, this is an extra incentive on Veterans Day weekend in November. This Vietnam War exhibit it will be free to veterans. You can bring your whole family for free on Monday. Marci, you mentioned the Beltrones, who are former Long Islanders, and have brought this Vietnam graffiti to the exhibit. I want to mention that there is a total of 1.4 million veterans of American wars in the tri-state area. We are collecting their stories as part of Legacies of War, which is two local productions made by WLIW, our sister station. Veterans are invited to share their photos and their stories and you can find the site by going to THIRTEEN.org/Vietnam and look for “Share Your Story, and we hope Johnny, or anyone who knows Johnny, might send a note there.
–That would be wonderful.
For many the Vietnam War is about deep personal loss and trauma. When you create an exhibition like this, how do you approach that audience?
There are many times that New York Historical Society takes on topics that involve histories that are very painful for the people, especially for the people who experience them directly. So we’re always thinking about that, the audience in general, and the many different sectors of the audience and what people are going to be bringing to our exhibits, and what emotions what knowledge what kind of stake they have in it. The best we can do is really try to make sure that everybody feels welcome and acknowledged and never judged. Ultimately what we’re trying to do really is get the story right.
When you mention many different audiences, you also have the Vietnamese perspective on this war. For this exhibit, the 84-year-old Vietnamese artist Tran Huu Chat reproduced one of his works that’s in the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts. How did this society come to make that commission and why was it important to include that work?
Among the first things we did to research this exhibition was to visit museums throughout Vietnam. And when we got to the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi, one of the first pieces that I saw hanging on the wall was this lacquer engraving by Tran Huu Chat made in 1962.
And as soon as I saw it I had the sense that this was the piece that I could use to help tell the story of the foundation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in 1960. So the National Liberation Front—the group that Americans called the Viet Cong—were the political opponents in South Vietnam to the South Vietnamese government. It was the NLF or Viet Cong that the South Vietnamese government was trying to crush, and which the U.S. was trying to help them so.
So here was this beautiful lacquer engraving that doubled as a piece of political propaganda, because what Chat was trying to do as young art student in 1962, was to make a connection between the NLF and the Viet Minh, who were heroes of the war of independence against the French. That war had had just only been recently concluded and Ho Chi Minh been the political leader of that struggle, and Chat, in this piece of art, was trying to make the connection between these heroes of Independence and the National Liberation Front. So he depicted this very festive scene of these soldiers and Ho Chi Minh all supporting each other.
I thought this was a marvelous opportunity to help to tell the story. I approached the museum for a loan and they considered it carefully, but in the end they felt that they couldn’t make the loan. But it turned out that some really lovely friends that I had made during this process here in the United States suggested that they knew an artist in Vietnam who might be able to recreate this artwork. And so we could have at least a version of it to share with Americans.
We contacted this artist and it turned out, incredibly, that she had been a student of Tran Huu Chat’s! He became a soldier. He survived the war. He came back and he began teaching art and practicing his art, and she had been one of his students. She approached Chat and talked about the idea of redoing it. And he offered to actually redo it himself.
And amazingly not only had he survived, but the original drawings that he had used as the basis for creating this engraving had also survived the war. So he was able to refer to his original drawings to recreate this work for us in 2016, in his eighties!
To communicate with him—because he’s not an English speaker and I’m not a Vietnamese speaker—another really lovely gentleman in Vietnam helped to work with us as an intermediary. We happened to be doing this at the right season because to work with lacquer there has to be the proper level of humidity. It turned out I had managed to ask them at the right season of the year to make this reproduction because otherwise they couldn’t have done it. So we had the right weather [and] we had the right people involved. All together we were able to create this perfect reproduction and share it with our visitors.
That’s an amazing story and I feel like we should do a whole other interview about art history and preservation. How large is this lacquer work?
It’s about three by four feet.
Marci, you wrote a book called Hidden in New York: A Guide to Places That Matter. Are there places in New York City that have associations with the Vietnam War era?
One that comes to mind is 39 Whitehall Street in downtown Manhattan. That’s the site of the old army building where generations of men were inducted into the army during the Vietnam War but also during earlier wars. It’s now a residential building but that’s an incredibly storied site and so many New York area veterans know that site, as do many anti-war demonstrators because this was one of the first places that the draft cards were burned during the Vietnam War era and where important anti-war demonstrations were held. So 39 Whitehall is an interesting site.
Another place would be Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza at 55 Water Street, which is the memorial plaza created by veterans themselves with help from friends and supporters. We have in the exhibit a large map that the veterans involved in this project helped to create. That’s really a wonderful site. It’s near the Staten Island Ferry Building.
The third site that I can think of is the Intrepid aircraft carrier. The Intrepid saw service throughout the Vietnam War, Extensive service actually. There’s a very nice exhibit about the Vietnam War aboard the carrier. So I think that’s an important site to keep in mind.
Then regionally the there’s a terrific museum about the Vietnam War in Holmdel, New Jersey. Again [it is] a veteran-led project. It’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Education Center in Holmdel, New Jersey. So I guess those would be the four sites that I would recommend.
—Thirteen was recently at the Intrepid Museum and their exhibit about Vietnam called “On the Line” is closing October 1st of this year, 2017.
Marci, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. This has been an incredible interview and a learning experience. And I know you’re still busy putting the finishing touches of this exhibit which opens on October 4th.
Thanks very much. I really appreciate it.
All right. And we’ll see you in October. Good. Thank you. Thank you, Marci.
That was Marci Reaven, curator of The Vietnam War exhibit at the New York-Historical Society, which opens October 4 and runs through April 22, 2018. For more information about the exhibit and special programs on Veterans Day weekend, visit nyhistory.org
Like the exhibit, the PBS documentary series on The Vietnam War offers a 360-degree perspective on the war, including interviews with veterans who fought on either side of it, as well as those in the peace movement.
You can stream all ten episode of The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick here on thirteen.org and THIRTEEN Explore apps for mobile, Apple TV, Roku, and Fire TV.