WATM recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tim Neff, Vice President/Director of Museum & Education at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Pittsburgh to talk about the mission of the museum, what visitors can expect and how COVID has changed the museum's offerings.
Editor's note: This interview was conducted May 11, 2021. Readers interested in visiting should check the museum website for COVID-19 related policies, as they may have changed since then.
WATM: What made you decide to become a steward of our nation's heritage?
Right from the beginning, my family has always been interested in history, especially our family’s history. Our family has been in American history for a very long time. Our family genealogy was a big part of me growing up. I think that got me started. I think, like a lot of people, I had an impactful high school teacher, who brought history to life, who made it interesting, really got it away from dates and names and made it more about stories and inspired me to move into a career of history.
Specifically, I had a second class about military history with a different teacher. [Laughs] Maybe the second teacher wasn’t as good as the first one, it was a great combination. I really appreciated that teacher’s delivery and the content of the military history class. You kind of put that together, when I went off to school my goal was to be a high school history teacher. That’s what I wanted to do. Different circumstances pushed me in another direction after college graduation and I ended up working in a history museum for my career. I’m very happy with how it all worked out, that’s for sure.
WATM: The Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum Trust is currently open by appointment only, what can attendees expect on their tour?
Our tour right now is a 90-minute experience. Our museum essentially covers the veteran experience from the Civil War to present day. So, our visitors are led through the museum, almost in a timeline. It starts with our Civil War collection, which is the primary reason our museum was built -- it is a Civil War Memorial -- and our story begins. Since then, other wars have occurred. Our museum, building and memorial have adapted and changed.
When visitors come, they start with the Civil War and then they move through the Spanish-American War, World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and even a little bit on Iraq and Afghanistan and current times. It truly is a comprehensive look at American veterans and their service to our country. Everything we have in our museum has been donated by local men and women who served. When you look at our museum, we have real artifacts donated by local veterans that we use to tell their story and honor their service to our country.
WATM: How has COVID-19 impacted the museum experience?
COVID-19 has forced us into the virtual world. To be honest, it was not something that I was too familiar with personally. I had to get used to it, [laughs] and learn as I went along. What we’re delivering is: every month we have what we call our Spotlight On Program. It’s an hour long on the second Thursday of each month. We just had one last night. It was about Memorial Day, the history of it and what it means. (The audience discussed) the different traditions that have evolved about honoring the fallen. (The museum) delivers that the second Thursday of every month. It’s about an hour-long program. We try to bring in guests from other museums, experts from different areas, but of course we always have our curator or myself on the panel as well bringing things back to Soldiers and Sailors and its mission.
Another thing we do is we work with another online organization called Varsity Tutors. My degree is in education. As I’ve said I wanted to be a teacher. I want to deliver content to young people during this time. We partnered with this group because they have a large audience all across the country. We’ve been doing classes once a month geared toward young people and educating them about topics of the military; African-Americans in the military, women in the military, the meaning behind the uniforms such as symbols, patches and ribbons. We did one about Veterans Day, We’re going to be doing one about Memorial Day. It’s kind of interactive, there are questions and games we play that are geared to get the younger audience interested about veterans and the military in general.
WATM: What other virtual content do you have available?
A big one I didn’t mention there is Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a big day for Soldiers and Sailors. Normally, we have an open house, thousands of people come to our museum. We have a ceremony in the morning to respectfully honor the meaning behind Memorial Day and some outdoor fun. Of course, we can’t do that now. This year we will deliver a virtual Memorial Day event.
The ceremony will take place at 11 o’clock on May 31st where people can watch the posting of the Colors, the National Anthem, laying of the wreath by Gold Star Families and we have a slide show we play every year which honors fallen soldiers from the Post 9/11 conflict. There are about 300 or so troops that have been killed from the state of Pennsylvania and we have a solemn tribute via Livestream after the live ceremony in our auditorium.
WATM: How can someone support the museum's mission?
The easiest way is a monetary donation. [Laughs] We’re always open to donations. That’s one way. Of course, there are other ways as well, we’re always looking for artifacts to be donated. Our museum is made up of artifacts donated by families and individuals. We do not go out and buy things or solicit things. They’re artifacts that are brought to us.
If there are folks in the Western Pennsylvania region that have items that they do not know what to do with and are looking for a home for, we’re always looking for those items and to see if they would be a good fit for our collection. So, donating artifacts is another way people can help. A third way is people can visit us. If people are in the Pittsburg area they can stop by. Hopefully, we’ll be able to open in the next month or so. Folks passing by the Pittsburg region should stop by and see our museum.
WATM: Do you have anything you would like to say to the veteran audience?
First I would like to say thank you for their service to our country. I am not a veteran myself but I’ve learned about all the sacrifices they have made through the years. We’re here for them. Our mission is to make sure their stories and sacrifices are not forgotten by future generations. I take that responsibility very seriously as an educator. On a normal year, we have thousands of school students coming through the museum and they learn the importance of recognizing veterans. Western Pennsylvania is home to a lot of veterans and to people who have veterans in their families. It reinforces how significant it is what they have done for our country.
WATM: What is next for you and the museum?
The next big step is opening up to our regular hours and walk-in business. We will always offer guided tours but some people appreciate coming through on their own. We have another big project where we are redesigning and rebuilding our exhibit cases. Our building was not built as a museum. Our museum cases had to be fit in the best way they could. They were done 30 years ago and weren’t done the best way possible. We want to improve that. It is a big project and will take a lot of fundraising efforts but we’re very lucky to have been given some money related towards the Korean War by the Korean Memorial Fund in this region.
We can completely redo our Korean War section of the museum. We are going to have three new Korean War exhibits filled with our artifacts. It will be built by a local firm that does museum exhibits and we’re hoping this time next year we’ll be ready to debut these brand new, state of the art, museum-quality exhibits for the Korean War. In turn, we can use it as a model to raise funds to revamp our other exhibits throughout our museum. It’s really exciting. We can take that next step to achieving a more professional look that people expect at museums. I’m not saying we do not have that now but there is always room for improvement. This is going to be a big part of that.
WATM: I like to throw a curveball at the end of every interview. What is a piece of military history that most people do not know?
That could be a lot of things, unfortunately. That why we’re here [laughs], to make sure people know about them. I’ll tell you one of the most popular stories that people are not prepared for: we have a painting from the Civil War about a dog. His name is Dog Jack. He was a dog of a local regiment of Civil War soldiers. People somewhat affiliate dogs with the military.
Of course, today dogs are in the military. Working dogs, you know. At that time he was just a mascot. It’s an amazing story about trading a confederate prisoner to get him back. It’s something that appeals to everybody. When people come to this museum, especially students as I’ve said, sometimes they don’t want to know everything about military history. What they don’t expect is to get this story about little Dog Jack. Almost everybody identifies with. They love that story and appreciate it. At least when it comes to us, I think people aren’t ready to learn that story when coming in.
Feature image: Wikimedia Commons