Military museum and library curator wants to preserve veterans’ stories

As curator of Chicago’s Military Museum and Pritzker Library, James Brundage of Crystal Lake often hears the regrets of visitors who had veterans in their family. They wished 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 inspire young veterans who are still around to tell their stories,” Brundage said.

To ensure that similar stories are not lost, the museum collects the oral histories of veterans and preserves their donated artifacts.

“We always strive to tell the story of the citizen-soldier: how one person’s story can fit into larger stories of military history – the larger narrative,” Brundage said.

The Pritzker Military Museum & Library is located at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street in Chicago.
– Courtesy of Military Museum and Pritzker Library

Brundage said having veterans on staff is essential to help build empathy and relationships with former and current service members who may be reluctant or nervous about sharing their military stories. Since the museum was only founded in 2003, it is still trying to build up its collections and archives.

“That way we can associate the physical objects with the veteran’s own voice or testimony,” Brundage said. “We get materials that can help contextualize, and for other people to view, which 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 passionate about military history, Brundage reflected on the context of his work while deployed in places like Ramadi, Iraq.

“I recognized that what I was doing was basically part of the story as it was being created,” Brundage said. “It was something big and something I enjoyed, so when I got out and went back to school, I knew I wanted to work with the story.”

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 was later hired as a museum and library curator in 2019.

“I was lucky,” Brundage said. “With this work, it combines the two things I love: narrative storytelling through exhibits and curatorial work with my own background and interest in military history.”

The exhibition "Drawn into battle: Bill Mauldin and the art of war" presents original works by the late Chicago Sun-Times cartoonist at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library in Chicago until May 31.

The “Drawn to Combat: Bill Mauldin & The Art of War” exhibit features original works by the late Chicago Sun-Times cartoonist at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library in Chicago through May 31.
– Courtesy of Military Museum and Pritzker Library

Recently, Brundage helped organize the exhibition “Drawn in Battle: The Art of Bill Mauldin.” It commemorates last year the centennial of the birth of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times editorial cartoonist who rose to fame during World War II with his beloved soldier characters Willie and Joe.

Brundage is also involved in building the organization’s 288-acre Research and Archives Center in Somers, Wisconsin.

“The initiative behind this new building is to give us an improved and much larger storage facility that we can expand into,” Brundage said.

In addition to additional gallery space to augment the Chicago location, the Wisconsin site will also feature a Cold War memorial.

As part of the daily operations of the museum and library, Brundage emphasizes the need to collect military histories so that knowledge can be passed on to future generations.

“It sounds cliché, but we really want to hear from everyone who served,” Brundage said. “For all the millions who have served, everyone is going to have a different experience.”

• Do you know veterans helping other veterans? Share your story at [email protected]

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