Meet the Curator: Mikall Venso of Soldiers Memorial Military Museum
By Kevin M. Mitchell
A love of history, a passion for stories, journalism experience and a journey along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail led Mikall (pronounced “Michael”) Venso down his current path.
For three months in 1998, Venso followed in the footsteps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, documenting his journey and how it differed from theirs. He hiked, paddled and road buses, filing weekly stories about his progress with the Lewiston Morning Tribune. Along the way, he also met many curators and delved into their work.
“I’ve been around museums since I was a kid,” Venso says, “but I’d never thought of curating as a career.”
Until he did.
Eventually, he moved to St. Louis, where he interned for the Missouri History Museum and then worked at Laumeier Sculpture Park for seven years. In 2018, he became the military and firearms curator of Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, and today, he’s overseeing the museum’s Vietnam: At War & At Home exhibition, which runs until May 27, 2024.
Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, which opened in 1938, is a state-of-the-art museum facility that honors local military service members, veterans and their families. The Missouri Historical Society assumed operations of the museum in November 2015 and began a $30 million revitalization of the site in 2016. Thanks to the renovation, the site now has more than double the amount of exhibit space, the four iconic Walker Hancock sculptures framing the entrance are free of coal dust and embedded dirt, the building is LEED-certified to the Gold level and it meets ADA compliance for the first time in the building’s history. There’s also a new reflection pool that enhances the aesthetic of the site.
The renovation was funded by private donations. “It’s a real blessing that people stepped forward,” Venso says. “Now, we can share these fantastic stories in the best possible manner.”
Venso works with the collections of the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum and the Missouri Historical Society, but he keeps the two separate and distinct. At the former, he aims to put artifacts into context, illuminating their deeper meanings for visitors.
When asked about his day-to-day responsibilities, he laughs and says, “I’m a juggler. As the steward of two collections, I have to take care of a lot of artifacts, but I have a team to help with that.”
He also has to make the decision whether or not to show certain pieces. “There might be something that I want to show, but it’s fragile and any exposure might damage it,” he explains. “Preserving an artifact means making it available to future generations, but the reality is, all objects have an expiration date. My job is to manage any aspects – think light, temperature, touch – that might shorten an object’s life span. For instance, I would love to see our guests try on some of our military uniforms, but they wouldn’t last long if we did that.”
One measure that Venso takes to protect artifacts is rotating the pieces of long-running exhibitions, such as Vietnam: At War & At Home; some objects are switched with similar ones to reduce the amount of time that they’re exposed to the elements. Another trick involves opening an exhibition with an original artifact and later replacing it with a facsimile.
Venso also fields inquiries about donations. “I do my best to answer questions quickly, but I also enjoy ‘rabbit hole’ pursuits,” he says. “I just wish I caught more rabbits!”
He adds that historical questions inevitably lead to more questions – which he likes. “The final chapter isn’t always written.”
This line of thought applies to the Vietnam exhibition. “Today, we view [the Vietnam War] differently than people did 20 years ago,” Venso says, “and a Vietnam exhibition in another 20 years will be different still. Aspects will be reinterpreted. There will be new artifacts, new information, new viewpoints.”
Here, Venso elaborates on his work at Soldiers Memorial Military Museum and the Vietnam exhibition.
Who will enjoy visiting the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum?
Everyone. That might seem like a cop-out, but we strive to make these stories accessible to everyone. The museum naturally appeals to veterans and their families, but we don’t compile an exhibition for that audience alone.
What inspires new exhibitions at the museum?
Sometimes exhibitions are inspired by leadership or community members. Sometimes they’re inspired by curators or staff. We brainstorm, looking at what’s possible with our resources. Once we choose a direction, we have to see what objects from the collection can support it.
Besides collecting artifacts, what’s the biggest challenge of creating a new exhibition?
How do we make it feel fresh? One thing that we learned from the first exhibition [at the newly renovated Soldiers Memorial Military Museum] is that, since we added an elevator, our exhibitions have two points of entry now – could we lean into that design? We also try to tell stories in a way that resonates with visitors and expands their knowledge of certain historical events, especially for those who didn’t live through them. For some people, everything that they know about certain historical events came from a few pages in their high school history books.
How is Vietnam: At War & At Home organized?
The exhibition tells the story of the Vietnam era from 1955 to 1975, in Southeast Asia and at home. We leaned into the physical structure of the space [to divide the two narratives], so when you step off the elevator, you turn left to learn about “home” first or turn right to learn about “war” first. The two sides are connected with “narrative nuggets,” such as letters and other items [that bring one side to the other]. I wanted people to know, chronologically, where they were in each story, as well as how the two stories are connected.
Can you share a specific example of a “nugget?”
In the early 1970s, the war shifted from ground attacks to aerial warfare. U.S. Air Force pilot Michael Blassie was shot down in May 1972, and although the crash site and some remains were located weeks later, their identification was inconclusive, and Blassie was declared MIA. In the years after U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam, the plights and pursuits of prisoners of war and those missing in action became a focus. President Reagan wanted to recognize the sacrifice of those who had served in Vietnam by selecting a set of unidentified remains from the conflict for burial at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Blassie’s family, who lives in St. Louis, believed that the chosen remains were, in fact, his, and in 1998, they convinced the Department of Defense under President Clinton to exhume the remains and test them. The DNA results confirmed that the remains were Blassie’s, and his family was able to rebury him at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. When his remains were transferred, his family also received artifacts from the crash site, and Blassie’s siblings have loaned us a fragment of his flight suit as a touchstone for his incredible story. There’s also a Hillsboro High School football helmet that bears Blassie’s call sign, Hawk Zero Two, and the POW-MIA logo. It represents the efforts of folks to never forget.
Like many of St. Louis’ world-class attractions, Soldiers Memorial Military Museum is free and open to the public. Visit Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.