Unpacking Difficult Memories

Project Unpack aims to gather oral histories from those in the community affected by war so a public archive may be composed. This archive will document participants’ wartime experiences for the education of current and future generations, as well as for research purposes.

The project’s main website said the oral histories will be stored permanently in the NDSU Archives, shared on the project website and through Digital Horizons, an online repository. The repository will provide public access to the archived materials to meet the program’s overall goal of establishing discourse communities.

At the helm of Project Unpack is a group of NDSU researchers and professors consisting of Christina Weber, an associate professor of sociology, Angela Smith, public history director and assistant professor, Michael Strand, professor of art and department head of visual arts, and Alison Graham-Bertolini, an assistant professor of English and women and gender studies.

Each individual involved in the project possesses a different expertise, and can contribute a different perspective to the project.

Community Involvement

Tim O’Brien, a Minnesotan author recognized for his 1990 novel “The Things They Carried,” has been consulted for various aspects of Project Unpack.

“Tim O’Brien came in the spring, and so we used (his) book a lot, and then we have led some workshops on discussing some of the themes (of the novel) and trying to get folks to think about how they might have objects and things they carry that inspire memory,” Weber said.

Weber added, “The work is really starting to center around this idea of objects and how we tell stories around these objects in our lives, (and) the book set that up for us really well.”

The project incorporates ceramic and writing workshops as well as storytelling to encourage community involvement with the project, particularly among veterans and family members of those who fought in war.

Oral histories have been gathered from retirement communities, veterans’ homes, the NDSU library and in other contexts.

“It’s been really fun to learn about all of these (stories), and meet people and learn about their experiences. Hard experiences and really interesting and funny experiences. It’s been quite a range of things,” Weber said.

Weber said the primary motivation behind Project Unpack stems from her profound interest in the effects of war.

Weber said her research is very much focused on the effects of war, it is not solely concentrated on the toll that war can take on the veterans, but their families as well.

“I’ve always been intrigued by how we pass down memories, and how we think about these big events, like wars, and how kids learn about them through their dad’s or mother’s experiences of war,” Weber said.

Weber added, “I think we forget how much that veteran and that soldier relies on their family, and that can take its toll on family members too. But it is also a very proud, shared experience for the family members to recognize that they have stories to tell too.”

Project Unpack is an interactive communal experience, as well as provide past, present and future generations with firsthand (and otherwise) accounts of wartime, as well as these willing participant’s mementos and memories from their pasts.

“One hundred years from now, there’s going to be a record of the experiences of these people, otherwise we don’t know (their stories). They die, and their stories go with them,” Smith said.

Smith continued, “There is value in being a witness. In the work that we do, with these people, we are witness to their lives, and to what their lives meant to them. And there is healing that comes from that. There is wisdom from hearing it. I can honor (their sacrifices) by actively listening and caring.”

Weber said an exhibit in December will display some of the things that participants made in the Project Unpack workshops.

Project Unpack is funded primarily by a $201,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.

The project will continue for as long as the grant allows, and Weber and Smith look forward to listening to the oral histories of many other willing witnesses of war.

The archive will be available to the general public, with certain aspects of the project currently able to be viewed and interacted with.


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