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Staff at Fort Sill museum improves post's facilities

Fort Sill Director of Museum Services Frank Siltman

Despite the many challenges facing the Army today, Fort Sill Director of Museum Services Frank Siltman considers his to be a dream job. ( Photo: Michael D. Pope )

Charting a course through the uncertain waters of a shrinking Army is all in a day's work for Fort Sill's three museums.

In an interview this past week, Frank Siltman, director of museum services, lavished praise on the hardworking staff, volunteers and special duty soldiers who keep the museums accessible to the public.

Siltman is a career artillery officer who got his education as a historian. Both his undergraduate and graduate work were in history, and he taught in the American history division of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

As a student at the Army War College, he worked on oral histories and other projects with the Army History Education Center.

"Once I got here to Fort Sill, (I) really engaged with the museums and became a regular volunteer with those museums. And that really came from my experiences at the Army War College where I had become a volunteer at the National Civil War Museum during my time there as well," Siltman said.

After volunteering at the Fort Sill Museum, "I literally fell into the best retirement job in the Army. That was with the coming of the Base Realignment (and Closure) Commission and moving the air defense up here, we established three separate museums as opposed to just a Fort Sill/Field Artillery Museum," he said.

"We've got great staff here," said Siltman, lauding the accomplishments of each of the three museum directors in turn.

"You know, the Field Artillery Museum opened in 2009, and it has just been a fantastic success. Mr. (Gordon) Blaker, as the museum director there, has just done fantastic things. Within his first year of operations, of course, won the Army Museum Excellence Award."

People comment on the fact that the Field Artillery Museum is constantly changing, which Siltman said is absolutely true.

"Mr. Blaker is constantly upgrading and improving that facility. So if you were in there eight months ago, you easily would walk in and see something new and different," he said.

Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Air Defense Artillery (ADA) Museum, "has come in here and in spite of the fact we didn't have a building built as part of BRAC, he has made the best of the situation and has created a great facility while we work toward a more permanent facility.

"We are hoping to eventually come up with the funding, with the help of private foundations like the Friends of Fort Sill, the Air Defense Association and others, so that we could some day have an Air Defense Museum that rivals or is equal to our Field Artillery facilities right down here," Siltman said. That would mean easy public access off the interstate to both great collections.

"And then Dr. (Scott) Neel's been here about two years, but he's just done fantastic work and has made great strides taking the Fort Sill Museum and National Historic Landmark forward and improving it even more than the great treasure that it was already," Siltman said.

Right now, the Directorate of Museum Services is working with the Friends of Fort Sill and the Fort Sill Garrison to expand the center gallery of the Field Artillery Museum by pushing it back to open up more space.

Security features added

In the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark, the directorate is looking to install security cameras and other technology so as to allow more public access to areas where the directorate doesn't have the manpower to sit and staff the facilities.

"We are getting fiber optic throughout the National Historic Landmark which will also allow us to improve the technological facilities that we're able to use in our historical interpretation," Siltman added.

"The Air Defense Park is almost complete. It's been a work in progress for a couple of years. But if you were to drive down past it today, you'll see a new addition, an air defense artillery radar. We recently installed the 90-mm antiaircraft gun in the revetment. The Artillery Park continues to grow and change. There are some pieces right now that have been taken out to be refurbished and brought back. And so, we are continually working to improve our exhibits, to improve the public's access to artifacts and to follow our mission of preserving and protecting those artifacts through restoration and preservation efforts," Siltman said.

Unique artifacts

All three museums can boast of having one-of-akind artifacts that can be seen nowhere else.

"In fact, our Native American collection is probably unequaled in many respects," Siltman said.

"I guess the thing that I would want to share with the public is, the Army's history is the nation's history. The Army was there at the beginning. It's been there all along. And as a veteran I'd like to think the nation is what it is today because of the service of the Army. But it's all integral, because our army has generally been a volunteer army for most of its history, and it's the citizens of the nation who have served in the Army. The linkage between our army and our society is one that is unmatched in most cultures, I think. Especially through the earlier part of the history in the 1700s and 1800s. And then I say the same thing for Fort Sill. We are not about just the Army and Fort Sill's history. This is about the region's history. It's about the tribes. It's about the settlers in this area. It's about how Lawton grew alongside of Fort Sill," Siltman said.

In its cavalry days, Fort Sill was one of a string of Army posts along the line of the western frontier, from forts McKavett, Chadburn, Griffin, Concho and Richardson in Texas to forts Sill, Reno and Supply in Oklahoma and Fort Larned, Kan.

"And of all those forts, the only one still mainly complete is Fort Sill. Fort Larned's a great site, but it's a reconstruction and this is an original fort. So when people are looking about our history and they want to come here, they see that this is a very unique treasure in our own community," Siltman said.

The primary job of Fort Sill's three museums is to train soldiers and leaders about Army history and Army heritage. "It's part of helping them understand who they are, as part of this citizen army," Siltman explained. Second to that is the preservation of the artifacts. Finally, there is public outreach. Siltman said that's a critical aspect at a time when only one percent of Americans wear the uniform and only about five percent of Americans are veterans.

Museum events planned

The Fort Sill museums reach out to the general public in various ways each year: Frontier Army Days, the vintage "base ball" game, a military timeline, the Candlelight Stroll and guided tours.

The government shutdown the first two weeks of October made it impossible for the 2013 Frontier Army Days to take place as originally scheduled. But the guidance from Fort Sill Commanding Gen. Mark McDonald was that it would not be canceled. The makeup dates will be May 2-3, and a second Frontier Army Days event is planned for October. The vintage "base ball" game normally held in July will be timed to coincide with the October event to take advantage of the cooler weather.

The military timeline will be presented on the Army birthday, June 14, south of the Field Artillery Museum next to Constitution Park. It will depict Army participation in all of the nation's major conflicts from the Revolutionary War to today.

Each of these events is presented with the help of the museums' four major support groups. These are the Gentle Tamers of Fort Sill, a group of women who serve as tour guides and living history interpreters and provide general support; the Buffalo Soldiers and U.S. Marshals groups that interpret their aspects of early day Fort Sill history, and the Troop L Descendants, which the directorate is attempting to revitalize now.

Siltman said the Buffalo Soldiers and U.S. Marshals plan to man the Guardhouse on the afternoon of April 12, and they hope to continue doing so on the second Saturday of each month when the Fort Sill Gun Detachment puts on its monthly muzzle loading demonstrations in conjunction with ADA demonstrations.

Fort Sill also enjoys a close working relationship with the Oklahoma Historical Society, the 4th U.S. Cavalry Association from Fort Reno, the Frontier Brigade and other re-enactment groups that add to the educational aspects of its outreach programs.

The School of Fire for Field Artillery

The School of Fire for Field Artillery

The School of Fire for Field Artillery (B432) is located across the street east. It has been totally restored and partially refurnished to the 1911 period when formal instruction in Field Artillery first began at Fort Sill. Associated exhibits explaining this history are also included within.

The Post Guardhouse

The Post Guardhouse

The Post Guardhouse (B336) has also been restored and refurnished to its 1870s appearance. A balanced approach of exhibit galleries and period furnished rooms is utilized here to address the early law enforcement history of the Army at Fort Sill. This includes the early lawbreakers, Deputy US Marshals, Indian Police, as well as the guards and prisoners. The first Post Chapel (B425) reflects an early house of worship in the Indian Territory and has been used continually for religious services since it was built in 1875.

Cavalry Barracks

Cavalry Barracks

The furnished Cavalry Barracks in B442N is a favorite of many visitors. One can feel the presence of the typical cavalry soldier in this building which is furnished to the 1875 period. From the bunks and equipment of the enlisted men, to the Sergeant's quarters, the supply room, the mess hall and kitchen, the daily life of a soldier during the Indian Wars in the Indian Territory envelopes the museum visitor.

The Warrior's Journey Exhibit Gallery

Warrior's Journey

The Warrior's Journey Exhibit Gallery is the most recent addition to the museum's educational programs and is already getting lots of attention. Approximately 30 exhibits depict the status of the warrior's tradition for the Native Americans from the pre-reservation period, to the aftermath of the surrenders at Fort Sill in 1875, to the present time. Rare and significant items once used by prominent warriors in the Southern Plains, are included in very informative exhibits.