Family mysteries can lead us to search history. Madeleine Emholtz, an Ashbrook Scholar from Florida, began reading about World War II because of her great-grandmother, who grew up in Germany and lived through the war there. After marrying a serviceman stationed in Munich Emholtz’s great grandfather became a U.S. citizen—and rarely spoke of her past life in Germany. Wondering what her great-grandmother experienced under Nazi dictatorship, Emholtz began to read about the war.
This interest led Emholtz to the Ashbrook Scholar Program. “I wanted a program that covered not just dates and facts, but causes and effects.” The nearby University of South Florida at St. Petersburg offered a good program on World War II. “But then I read the Ashbrook brochure, and it was exactly what I wanted. I asked for the application packet, and the day it arrived, I filled it out and sent it in.”
Studying 20th century history in the Ashbrook Scholar Program has enlarged Emholtz’s view of the Second World War. “It changed the way war is fought, international politics, and social life in America. It revealed the best and worst of human nature. The more I learn about it, the more interesting it becomes,” Emholtz said. Meanwhile, reading American political thought in the Ashbrook program has given Emholtz a deeper understanding of “the principles of freedom and justice acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence” for which servicemen in the war “risked their lives.”
With the help of grant funding through the Ashland University Career Center, Emholtz applied for and was accepted as an intern at the Naval Aviation Museum in her hometown of Pensacola.
The museum, the world’s largest of its kind, houses over 150 restored aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, as well as a large exhibit on the USS Enterprise CV6—the most decorated US warship of WWII and the only one to survive the Naval battles of 1942, including the decisive battle of Midway fought 75 years ago this summer.
Emholtz began as a collections intern in the summer of 2016. The museum curator, Dina Linn, showed Emholtz a triage room stacked with donations, teaching her how to categorize and label the effects of naval airmen in order of importance (medals, uniform, shoes), readying them for accession and display or storage.
“Dina didn’t treat me like an intern; she treated me like a new employee,” Emholtz said. Armed with the essential directions, Emholtz worked through years of backlogged records. When she turned up unusual items, Linn explained their significance. For example, a uniform colorfully embroidered on the inside showed the work of a seamstress at an Asian port-of-call and a serviceman’s desire to personalize his standard-issue attire in a way that would not be detected at the roll-call inspection.
Emholtz also helped with new collections, such as that from Admiral Roy Lee Johnson, the first Captain of the USS Forrestal, later Admiral of the 7th Fleet. With gloved hands she examined his helmets and the intricate carving in the blade of his dress saber. She categorized and stored letters Navy Corpsman Frank Turpen wrote to his wife before he died with the Marine division storming Peleliu in the South Pacific.
Such artifacts give Americans a “concrete connection to history,” Emholtz says, while less eye-catching holdings, such as an aircraft carrier’s logbooks, can help historians establish the facts of a battle. She has learned that without a curator’s organized direction, people who live “only one generation away” from historical events may carelessly toss the materials we need to understand the past.
Linn says Emholtz—this summer a curatorial intern—has a gift for the work, which involves “conducting research and playing detective, verifying history and unscrambling mysteries so that artifacts are properly tracked and preserved.” This requires “incredible attention to detail to ensure that false provenance is not assigned to an artifact, and to maintain public trust in a museum’s ability to serve as an academic institution. Having worked in the Public History field for over 14 years and trained a number of interns, I can honestly say that Maddie has been by far the most inquisitive, diligent, and helpful of the group,” Linn said. “When processing an unfamiliar artifact, Maddie always takes the initiative to first hunt down and research an answer before asking for assistance. That, to me, speaks volumes about a person’s love of history. It is the difference between a good intern and a great one.”
Before her internship, Emholtz hoped to enter a PhD program in history, leading to a career as a college teacher and historian. Now she’s considering a graduate program in public history, preparing her to educate American museum visitors, while preserving the materials historians rely upon. Either way, Emholtz will work to preserve our national memory.