The Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center: Storytelling, Art, Music, and History in Tijeras, NM

Posted by Dr. Circe Olson Woessner, Nov 01, 2019

It generally happens like this: The door to our museum opens—and in comes … a former military brat … or spouse … or a veteran with his or her family. Most of the time, they’re from out of town and have been following us on Facebook, planning a trip to our museum when they visit Albuquerque—or they were just driving along Route 66 and happened to see our sign.

No matter how they got to the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center, their reactions are almost always the same: “I had no idea what to expect…” and then “Oh—this is amazing!”

It’s understandable that people don’t know what to expect—our unique museum focuses on the stories and history of military families. And, since we are not branch-, generation-, or era-specific, our museum is a hodgepodge of photographs, documents, artifacts, stories—and more—dating back to the 1880s.

Inside the museum, artifacts and exhibits are displayed in a “welcome home” design.

This juxtaposition means that our exhibits are eclectic and well-suited to our venue, which is a 1970s house attached to Molly’s Bar—itself, the center of a colorful local history. Amalia Gianinni DiLallo Simballa’s (Molly) namesake bar is a perfect mix of locals, bikers, tourists, and movie folks. Romeo, Molly’s son, took over the bar after a stint in the Navy and a long career in show biz. Molly’s offers a variety of live music daily.

Most days, we can hear the bar’s music through the museum’s walls, which can be therapeutic, and when visitors plop down on our overstuffed couch to look through our vintage scrapbooks or to reminisce about their time in the military, they often unconsciously tap their toes or bob their heads while their stories flow. Time seems to stand still, as the reminiscences keep on coming—along with the laughter, tears, and shared experiences. “Story” is at the very heart of this place.

Whereas Molly, who also was a justice of the peace, married couples in her living room, service members and military spouses become US citizens in ours. We once had 45 people crammed into our kitchen and living room during an amazing party after one naturalization ceremony, and in typical military family fashion, we adapted, overcame, and embraced the unexpectedly large crowd. It was a joyous, unforgettable day.

The Potholder Project: A staple for Military Moms

Like most kitchens, ours is a gathering place where lots of activities happen. Our table is strewn with the detritus of our latest creations—markers, scissors, and glue used for turning 1940s Life magazines and vintage photographs into collaged panels for our latest exhibit: “A G.I. Christmas Carol: Tokyo Army Hospital, 1954.” 

Because people process things differently, we capture military family history in as many formats as possible. The museum is educational, experiential, and interactive. It’s a mixture of practicality and whimsey—take our living room, for example—with its props of starched uniforms on an ironing board complete with iron, starch bottle and laundry basket, its cozy sitting area where we have discussion groups or watch DVDs on TV, or its exhibits, with panels of facts and figures. Visitors become a part of the museum, by simply being there.

People can open cupboards and pull out high school senior class beer mugs from Germany, coffee cups from installations around the globe, and appreciate stories painted on potholders honoring military mothers. Our exhibit “Together We Serve: The Modern Military Spouse” was created using excerpts from books and poems written by 41 military spouse authors. Their books are prominently featured in the exhibit.

Scholars conduct research using our books, documents, letters, or hundreds of folios of firsthand written stories dating back to World War II. They study our artifacts from Africa, the Far East, and Europe, or peruse historic photographs donated by the families of service members long gone. The photos taken with old Brownie cameras show the horrors of war documented by the very service members engaged in it. Many of those pictures are too terrible to comprehend …

Road to Recovery: Begins with a Single Step project included Military Brats and/or Spouses painting their recovery stories on jeans and veterans painting on ACUs (Army Combat Uniforms). All painted pants are part of a permanent exhibit, “Addiction/Recovery Military Families Cope.”

Storytelling, art, and music are at the heart of our work. Our revolving writer-in-residence program produces one anthology a year. We’ve created spoken word performances and collaborated with a theater company in Richmond, VA, to develop a play based on stories from one of our books. Working with a college intern, we offered a summer theater camp, and with another intern created a 10-minute music documentary blending stories from Gold Star families into a seamless piece of music. We’ve hosted papermaking workshops for veterans, who created paper from uniform fabric and made strings of beautiful paper prayer flags. One string hangs in our kitchen and reminds us just how elusive peace is. We encourage people to add their stories to our growing collection. They can send them in in any format—art, music, audio or video recordings, the written word—everything is gratefully accepted, and carefully curated.

Handmade Prayer Flags grace the meditative walking path in the Memory Garden.

Our vision is being realized in the beautiful mountains of New Mexico: We have become a place “where people with shared and converging paths come together as community, inspiring a sense of place and history. As a repository for their stories, we shape the future by preserving our heritage, recording its evolution, and inviting dialogue by sharing our experiences with the world.”