People create objects: clothing, art, buildings, tools, utensils, written records and more. These things constitute material culture. How do the things we create reflect our culture? Our values and beliefs? How has the Barbie doll evolved over decades? What is our relationship with “things”? Why do we keep what we do and discard other things? Do they represent fond memories or part of our personal history? Do they represent some aspect of who we are?
Dr. Andrea Gazzaniga’s freshman Honors class is studying material culture. They recently read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien which talks about what young men carried with them when they fought in Vietnam. The Special Collections and University Archives manuscript collection MS-54 Al Murphy Vietnam Military Service Papers (https://inside.nku.edu/steelyarchives/specialcollections/alphabeticallist/murphy-vietnam-military.html) is about one local veteran’s experience in Vietnam in 1971-1972. The class visited the archives and had the opportunity to meet Mr. Murphy and see objects from his collection. Having read the text himself, he discussed objects from his collection, explaining what they were and how he used them in Vietnam. His boots, P-38 can opener, dog tags, and other objects were passed around for students to see firsthand. Murphy shared a selection of photographs which illustrated statements from the text as well as personal photographs that hang in his house of the men he fought with in his unit.
The experience of seeing objects mentioned in the text and hearing a former soldier speak to them about his experience made both the objects in his collection and the text more real and personal for the students. Our thanks to Mr. Murphy for donating his collection, and for giving his time to speak with the students. What follows is the reflections of several students on their experience meeting Mr. Murphy.
January 28th, 2020: By Austin Alwell
Today I had the privilege of hearing and speaking with a veteran of the Vietnam War, Al. It was a truly eye-opening experience that really made me feel grateful for the situation I am in. To preface our discussion, we were asked to read an excerpt from the book The Things They Carried. This piece tells the story of a small troop of men and intensely describes the things they are carrying along with them on their journey. One really cool part about meeting with Al was that I could see what some of the objects mentioned in the book looked like. Many of his photos had men with the weapons described, as well as the clothing. This part was one of the most powerful and impactful moments of the discussion. Seeing the photos makes the reading experience much more personal and allows for a much more connected experience. I felt as if I was walking along with Al as he told his story and as he mentioned some of the men in his pictures. It made me appreciate the freedom I have. I was also intrigued by the significance of some of the small objects. Things like a can opener, which Al found to be one of the most important, would not hold gravity without further explanation from the object keeper.
Overall, I found this experience very fruitful. Being able to hear Al’s story and have a personal narrative about such an emotional event was really amazing. I was also inspired by Al’s motives to give away his items. He wants to be able to continue the legacy of not only himself, but more importantly all of the men who served with him. He feels as if he carries their stories along with his. This is something I find to be powerful. It shows his selflessness to give away objects with such an emotional attachment, all to better the future generations and community members. In addition, I want to thank the University Archives for their role in preserving these objects and many more. Without their help we would not be able to have such impactful experiences. They are playing an active role in ensuring the authenticity of our past.
The Secret Room by Jade Raleigh
Northern Kentucky University’s Special Collections and University Archives holds the memorabilia from various aspects of history. Located on the first floor of Steely Library, the room is hidden away in plain sight. Something a person would pass by every day without realizing what lays behind it is a look into the past–a time machine available to all.
There are, however, a few things to note before entering this time machine. The first being how seriously Lois Hamill, the University Archivist, takes her job. This position that Hamill holds is an earnest one– she is responsible for what is in the archives. The preservation of the objects located within is of extreme importance. Clean, freshly washed hands may seem like an odd request, but it is a must. Humans use their hands every day. They use them to use the restroom, to eat, to open doors, to write, and many other things. All this activity can leave germs, grease, ink, paint, and dirt on the hands– so washing them before holding memorabilia of the past is necessary. The second thing to note is mainly for those who enter the archives looking for help with research. The Archives is a great place to go, and a helpful resource to rely on, however, if you enter looking for knowledge, make sure to bring a pencil. Pens and markers are permanent, they cannot be erased; ensuring the documents are not damaged irreversibly helps keep the Archives running smoothly. The third and final thing to note is no food and no drinks–for obvious reasons. The Archives holds objects you may have never thought about.
“These are things people lived with and used in their daily life– so we cannot describe them the way you would describe a book,” Hamill said when talking about the objects in the Archives. The walls are littered with pictures from the past, a look into NKU’s history. The room also has objects that people have donated that do not necessarily relate to the college itself.
Items preserved from the Vietnam War may be something you would think the Archives would not have, but thanks to Al Murphy, a Vietnam veteran, that is not the case.
Murphy painted a vivid image of what it was like being a soldier during one of the United States’ most controversial wars.
“Most of us didn’t want to be there,” Murphy said. A statement that was later backed up with a photo he had kept over the years.
Murphy did not only have photographs of his time spent in Vietnam, but he also had various objects. A pair of beat-up old military boots were the first thing many students noticed. Sitting in what appeared to be a make-shift box, meant to keep the boots in good condition, Murphy passed them around for everyone to see.
“It was unique for me. It was a symbol of where I was and what I did,” Murphy said about the boots.
The boots were made of canvas material–material known for its durability and resilience. They were not the only pair of shoes Murphy donated. The second pair of shoes showed a change in history that many would not notice. The second pair had Velcro straps–something with which most of today’s generations are familiar. However, at the time, they were not as popular. Subtle changes are noted by seeing and hearing about people’s experiences. Velcro may seem as though it has been utilized since the beginning of time, but that is not the case. Murphy spoke about how nice it was to have a pair of slip-on shoes, something easy to put on and take off–something that provided him, and many other soldiers, a much-needed break from constant boot-wearing.
Murphy brought back numerous important items, but not any miscellaneous ones.
“Anything I wanted to keep, I had to carry,” Murphy said. Constant movement, except when it was dark, for “you didn’t move at night” according to Murphy, meant only bringing along what was needed.
Along with the boots, were dog tags, a bible, an M60 wrench, and more photographs. The dog tags identified each soldier, but according to Murphy, no one wore them around their necks. The noise from them, as well as how shiny there were, would have the United States Army at a disadvantage. Instead of wearing them around the neck, one dog tag would be located in a soldier’s boot and the other in their bag or a different holding place.
The bible was a pocket bible. Some soldiers would read them all day, some would just carry them according to Murphy’s recollections. The smell of the bible was noticeable–it smelt like any old book that lasted through the years, but this book had seen so much more.
The M60 wrench was one item that did not belong to Murphy, but rather his friend. It was seen as a good-luck charm. When his friend came back from the war, Murphy was going into the war. His friend gave him the wrench and said: “Murph, you have to bring this back.” The most important photographs were saved for last.
“These are the real memorabilia,” Murphy said, “photos of friends.”
When asked why Murphy wanted to donate the items he had, he said one factor was “appreciation to people we left there.”
The Archives is home to many amazing things and many amazing stories. It is worth a visit, and “a good place to start in many cases” according to Murphy.
by Benjamin Lindblad
My visit to Steely Library’s Special Collections with my class was extremely informative as well as interesting. Throughout the time I was there I was able to hear a first-hand account of a person who once had items, now located in the Special Collections, in his possession. Our guest informed us of his time during the Vietnam War and what the overall experience was like. By using each object to explain a particular story or memory, I was able to take a trip back in time and get a good image of what it was like back then dealing with the circumstances. One object featured in the Steely Library’s Special Collections was a pair of boots that he wore during his time in Vietnam. They showed wear on all areas and told of a time when they were being used to march through the deep forests in the warzone. He told us about moving along in the jungle and what objects were crucial to survival. One of the objects that played a key role in staying alive was a basic, hand-held can opener. Whilst in Vietnam, canned food was the only food available and was key to survival, but it couldn’t be without a basic can opener. Other objects that played a pivotal role were discussed and passed around as well. Many other objects not discussed in this piece were available to look at throughout the visit. Before going to the Special Collections I didn’t know what to expect, but after going I can say that it was more than I thought it was going to be. It is a great resource for academic research as well as personal interest. I would highly recommend anyone going to the collection to further his or her own knowledge on just about anything through the vast array of objects available there.
by Madison Johnson
The Special Collections meeting we had during class on Tuesday really touched me. I thought it was super cool to hear another viewpoint on the military from someone other than my family. Also, it was interesting to see it from a non-navy point of view. It was emotional looking at the pictures and hearing him tell his stories of his time while serving. It’s touching to see how much he cares that his friends are not forgotten. I really liked how he incorporated the one guy named Rho into the pictures, even though he barely knew him. I understand how he regrets how he may have treated him then; however, he did not know any other way. At least he can look back now and understand his mistakes and grow from them. It touched everyone in class including me and I feel like we can learn a lot from history and understand why certain things happened. I think there is a lot that could be prevented from happening if we studied why certain events came to pass and that it could help with future problems that could occur.
NKU’s Special Collections was a great way to interact with a story in a unique way. The Special Collections allowed me to see the objects behind the story and even better, it allowed me to see the actual people behind the story. The Special Collections truly is special because you can see the dedication of the staff to preserve artifacts and to preserve the stories they hold. The importance of their relationships with the people that donate belongings is extremely evident.
Mr. Al Murphy donated his belongings from Vietnam but is so trusting that everything is extremely taken care of, these are the things he carried in the war but that he no longer has to and he knows the best place for them is in NKU’s Special Collections.