Museum ties current challenges to history

Fort Douglas » Curators to connect past, present conflicts and put them on display.
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Bob Voyles still remembers the dark jokes inspired by the rumor the Army had accidentally killed thousands of sheep on ranches near Dugway Proving Ground in Utah's vast west desert.

At the time, Voyles was a soldier in the Utah National Guard, which sometimes sent its members to train at Dugway and surrounding areas affected in the tests.

"We used to say that the Army would pay off the sheepherders, but they didn't hesitate to send us out there -- we were more expendable than sheep," said Voyles, director of the Fort Douglas Museum in Salt Lake City.

Today, Voyles' office is in the building that served as headquarters for the Deseret Test Center, which ordered chemical and biological tests the Army kept secret for decades -- and which some veterans now believe are responsible for making them ill.

That history gives Voyles a constant reminder of the ties that bind the past to the present. Now, he and fellow museum employees are embarking upon the modest museum's most ambitious schedule to date, with the goal of making those connections real, relevant and personal for visitors.

Museum officials say they'll do that by introducing exhibits that will explore the nation's current wars, military culture and security challenges, alongside artifacts from the past.

"Seldom will you find anything happening in this world that doesn't have some sort of historical connection," Voyles said.

And a country struggling with how to deal with prisoners of war, integration of minority groups into the armed forces, and potential pandemics can learn lessons about all of those things by learning the history of Fort Douglas, he said.

"Human passions and emotions do not change, but we can understand it better and we can avoid some of the really bad mistakes we have made by studying the past," Voyles said.

To do that, he said, means drawing new blood and new stories through the museum's Civil War-era doorways.

"One of the things we're trying to get across is that museums don't have to be places where things are dusty and old," said Ephriam Dickson, the museum's curator. "The purpose of a museum is to use objects to tell stories. Those objects don't have to be old. We want to bring in new stories."

To that end, the museum is teaming up with the nearby University of Utah to identify students who have served in the nation's ongoing conflicts. "We want to get them to tell their stories, and then give them opportunities to connect those stories with the past," Dickson said.

Camp Floyd

The largest Army post in the U.S. in 1861 was at Camp Floyd in the Cedar Valley, a legacy of the "Utah War" that brought federal troops to the area to monitor Mormon residents. This past summer, Ephriam Dickson, curator of Fort Douglas Museum, organized an archaeological dig at the camp's location. A talk on Camp Floyd will be offered at the upcoming annual conference of the Utah State Archaeological Society, to be held in June at the museum.

Fort Douglas

Grounds » Always open to the public, except for active military areas. Located at 32 Potter St., just east of the University of Utah's South Campus Drive. Look for the parade ground's flagpole. The museum is in the red sandstone buildings on the south side with the tanks.

Museum » Open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Sundays, Mondays and federal holidays. Admission is free.

Fort Douglas in 2010

Among museum director Bob Voyles' goals for the year:

Raise $1.4 million in a capital campaign.

Increase visitation by 20 percent, from 6,000 to 7,200.

Increase docents by 20 percent, from eight to 10.

Upgrade rooms and the Web site.

Display "Utahns In Iraq" exhibit in the first half of the year; an artillery history exhibit is slated for the second half.