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In With The Old: Fort Des Moines and the Challenge of Keeping Museums Relevant

An image of the 5th Provisional Company officers reserve training Camp Ft. Des Moines Ia., 1917. Source: Library of Congress

5th Provisional Company officers reserve training Camp Ft. Des Moines Ia., 1917. Source: Library of Congress

Fort Des Moines represents an essential space in the historical intersection of the United States military and the Civil Rights Movement. The fort served as the first Officer Candidate School for African American men during World War I, and then became the first school for Commissioned female officers in World War II. Countless human stories move through and across this historical site, and many are acknowledged and represented through the Fort Des Moines Museum & Education Center. However, it is one thing to simply acknowledge these stories, and another to bring them to life and share them in the present day.

BackStory spoke with Jeff Kluever, a board member of the Fort Des Moines Museum & Education Center in Des Moines, Iowa. We discussed the significance of Fort Des Moines and the challenges facing the museum. We also asked how the museum is representing the Fort’s past in order to highlight its relevance today.

BackStory: What is your role at the museum and what is the museum’s significance to you?

Kluever: I became involved with the Fort Des Moines Museum in December of 2017. There was a newspaper article in the Des Moines Register that detailed the struggles that the museum was going through, and when I read that article, I thought I might be able to provide some assistance. I was the executive director of a historical museum in Kansas. I ran the education department at a Civil War battlefield and plantation in Virginia. And so, while I couldn’t write the really big checks that the museum needs, I thought I might be able to offer some assistance. So in December I was voted on to the board, and have been on the board since that time. My personal interest, I suppose, is that I think that the state of Iowa doesn’t always do a good job of showcasing its history and showcasing the important role that we have played in shaping the nation’s history. And so, while the Civil War is sort of my historical interest, I did want the museum to be successful, because it’s a really compelling story, it’s an important story that we tell at the museum. It is relevant to issues and conversations that we are having today, and I think the museum and the education center would be a great place to have those conversations, if we can make it sustainable moving forward.

BackStory: Could you elaborate a little bit on what these conversations should be? What is the significance of Fort Des Moines, both in Des Moines, and also in American history more broadly?

Kluever: So, there are two big historical moments in Fort Des Moines history. The first happened in 1917. The United States is, of course, getting ready to enter into World War I, and for the first time, they are going to have an Officer Candidate School for African-American men. And Fort Des Moines is chosen as the location for that school to be placed. So, 1,200 African-American men come to Fort Des Moines. 639 of them graduate as commissioned officers in the United States Army, which is the first time in U.S. Army history. There had been several other African-American men who had been commissioned officers, had gone through West Point, et cetera, but this is the first Officer Candidate School specifically for those individuals. And so, those men served as officers in World War I, but I think what is really compelling about their story is the legacy that those men then leave. Charles Hamilton Houston is a Fort Des Moines graduate, he ends up being known as the man who killed Jim Crow. He’s the chief litigator for the NAACP. He argues eight cases in front of the Supreme Court and wins seven of them. There are a couple Fort Des Moines grads who, when they are not allowed to join the American Bar Association, they form the Iowa Negro Bar Association, which becomes the National Bar Association. And there are just these countless stories where, what’s the common thing, is that they all went through Fort Des Moines. And so, there’s this really important legacy piece. The second crucial event in Fort Des Moines history happens in 1942, when again, the United States is ramping up into World War II, and they decide that they’re going to have commissioned female officers for the very first time. And so, the very first Officers Candidate School for women is also placed at Fort Des Moines. These two pretty significant changes in our country’s history both have ties to the Des Moines area. And I think that’s something that we need to showcase, it’s something we should acknowledge, it’s something that we should be proud of. And I would like to further that mission.

BackStory: Speaking of the showcasing of these stories, how is the museum approaching the representation of its history, in terms of the exhibitions that you’re showing, and also in terms of the museum’s place within the Des Moines community?

Kluever: I think right now the museum is sort of displaying that history in a very traditional sort of museum, text-heavy, exhibit format, which is one of the things that we need to change, frankly. That sort of, “If you build it, they will come,” ideal in museums doesn’t really work very well, unless you’re the Smithsonian and you just have better stuff than everybody else does. So, I would, and the board would, like to really use the history that happened at Fort Des Moines as sort of a cornerstone, as a foundation piece, but really emphasize the educational center aspect of our mission, and make this museum a place where leadership training and development happens, where conversations about race and gender can happen. I sort of envision the Fort Des Moines museum as, “We trained leaders here in 1917, we trained leaders here in 1942, and we’re training leaders here in 2018.” And I want to use that tradition of training leaders, and breaking barriers and stuff, to further the mission moving forward in 2018. And I think that would make us more dynamic, and I think it would make us more relevant to the community. The traditional sort of museum piece has its place, but I think we can be more meaningful if we add a more educational, and a more dynamic, component to it.

BackStory: Let’s touch back on the struggles the museum has faced. Especially speaking to your experience with other museums in other states – is what you’ve faced a common problem that a lot of museums are going through now?

Kluever: I do think it’s a common problem, and I don’t think Fort Des Moines is immune from that problem. I do think that plays a role. I think Fort Des Moines, in years past, probably made some poor decisions just from an organizational standpoint that put us in this position from a financial standpoint. So, there were poor decisions that contributed to our current situation. But I do think that there is some truth to the sort of “while pillar-ness” of museums, where all we have to do is open the doors and present the story, and people will like us, and they’ll come to us, and they’ll come see it again. I don’t think that’s the world that museums operate in anymore, and I think the most successful museums are the ones who recognize that and adapt and change. And the ones who don’t recognize that are the ones who tend to struggle.

BackStory: So, it’s not necessarily a comment on how Americans are willing to engage with their history, it’s more just an issue of the medium, you would say?

Kluever: Well, I think there’s still value in the traditional museum of showcasing artifacts, because I do think people gravitate towards the tangible. It’s why we like visiting battlefields and monuments, and things like that, because there is a sense of place and time, and, “Oh, this is real, I can see the thing.” But ultimately, the World War I overcoats in our display look exactly like all of the World War I overcoats in everyone’s display. And what makes us unique is our story. And I think, when museums do a better job of highlighting the story, and highlighting why that story matters, and make emotional connections with people, I think we’re better off. The best example I can think of is, if you go tour a historic home. A lot of times, when you go on those tours, and I’ve been guilty of this, as a tour guide, you give the tour and you talk about the home. And you talk about the architecture, and you talk about the furniture, and you talk about when it was built, and you talk about all of those pieces. Which is interesting, architectural history is interesting, and all that stuff is good. But I think what people connect with is the stories of the people who were in that home. You know, the emotions of these parents who had three kids die before the age of five. What was Christmas like here? Those types of stories are what really draw people in, and it’s those types of stories that provide relevance. And relevance is key. I mean, without relevance, you lose the sort of inspirational component of museums. It just becomes a roadside attraction instead of something that changes the way you think or feel about something.

BackStory: Sure. It’s not just a relic, it’s actually touching on the present day, too.

Kluever: Right. I try and focus on, when possible, the little things, like … This sounds a little strange, but if you’ve got somebody’s shirt, and you can see the sweat stains on that shirt, and how that sweat stain is sort of an invitation to think about what his or her life was like, in the trenches, or on the front, or in those types of places. The tangible might be the thing that catches somebody’s eye, but it’s not going to capture their heart, and it’s probably not going to capture their imagination. Sometimes it can, but at some point, you’re going to have to give that story piece, that story component to it, to really get people to engage.

BackStory: Anything else you’d like to add, about the museum or about Des Moines in general?

Kluever: I mean, the only thing that I would add about our museum is that we are a local story, and a local museum, but we are a national story, and have national implications. And we would love to engage with folks who have connections to our history. You know, there were only 1200 African-American men who came through the fort, but there were tens of thousands of women who came through the fort. And then, there were any number of people who served at the fort in between World War I and World War II. So, folks with connections to our story, we would love to hear from, and engage with. And I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we are going through significant financial hardship. We are trying our very best to stay open, and to keep the museum up and running, and if anybody is interested in helping us support that mission, we would greatly appreciate that support. And the best way to connect with us is on Facebook, so if people search for “Fort Des Moines Museum” on Facebook, that’s the best way to keep current with what’s going on at our museum.

Learn more about the Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center on their Facebook page.

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