Cincinnati Treasures: Reflecting on Our Military Past

Marine Pfc. Paul E. Ison dashes across “Death Valley” on April 1, 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa. This was one of Ison’s three runs across the deadly stretch of ground that day.


Check out our exclusive gallery of exhibition photos from the Cincinnati Museum Center's archives here


Cincinnati is a city with a long and rich history spanning hundreds of years. Since the founding of the city, America has been through several wars and a large number of events of political and social relevance in many of which Cincinnati played some part. It is this historical significance that Cincinnati Museum Center highlights through the “Treasures” exhibit series; the most recent incorporates artifacts from the city’s military history. 

“Treasures of Our Military Past” is the fourth installment of the series and opens to the public today, May 15. “Each of the ‘Treasures’ exhibits highlights some part of Cincinnati history,” says Scott Gampfer, director of history library and archives at Cincinnati Museum Center. The exhibit is designed to celebrate the region’s rich history with artifacts collected from Cincinnatians who participated in the military from as early as the 1780s. More recent conflicts, such as the wars in the Middle East, will also be featured, although there are fewer artifacts available from that time period.

“Often, some period of time elapses before people come forward to donate things,” says Gampfer. “I think many people don’t consider items from recent history to be old enough to belong in a museum. But the idea is to take something of value and turn it over to those with the expertise to preserve it properly.”

The exhibit features a wide variety of items, from the military uniforms of local soldiers to a salvaged timber from Fort Washington. The museum has an astonishing amount of donated items, including the uniforms of two former Cincinnati mayors, one from the Civil War and the other from WWII. “The exhibit runs from the Revolutionary War era to the present,” says Jonathan Perlman, senior planned gift advisor for Cincinnati Museum Center. “We have photos, archival materials, documents and physical artifacts.”

One detail that makes the “Treasures” series unique is the interactivity woven into each exhibit: “Treasures of Our Military Past” features a tribute wall that pays homage to military heroes tying into Cincinnati over the ages. For a small donation, Cincinnatians can have the name of a loved one put on the wall, which is on display for the duration of the exhibit before being archived and put online.

“We anticipate that this feature will bring in a lot of emotion,” says Gampfer. “People are very reverent towards military vets and service members and want to commemorate them.” The museum hopes that people attending the exhibit will be inspired to seek out the artifacts they have packed away at home and donate them. This would not only help preserve the items, but help the museum to expand its knowledge of Cincinnatians through the ages. “The participation level of the exhibit is important,” says Jeffrey Hinebaugh, committee chair for the premiere reception and partner at Dinsmore & Shohl, LLP. “Everyone has something that’s touched them from historic wars. We’re hoping the exhibit will encourage the community to come forward to tell their stories and share their artifacts.”

The exhibit also features an intimate look into the United Service Organizations (USO) lounge from Union Terminal during World War II. During the war, roughly 20 percent of all WWII GIs passed through Union Terminal, and the USO lounge grew rapidly over the course of the war. “We’re looking at how the soldiers packed, what they took with them when they went into war,” says David Conzett, curator of history object collections and fine art at Cincinnati Museum Center. But what drives the exhibit – and most of the exhibits in the “Treasures” series – is the existence of personal stories that deserve to be told and kept alive. Gampfer says that these stories help motivate the museum to choose certain artifacts over others. “We have items that are not just related to combat, but also tied into production or the Cold War,” he says. “We have artifacts from peace time and interwar periods. We work to pull out items that tell a story, whether it’s in relation to the item itself, the person behind the item
or how we received and restored it.” 

For example, Gampfer and Perlman recall one artifact, a restored naval cannon from the 1800s, that was on display outdoors in Pleasant Ridge for years before it was recovered by CMC. “It still had all its original pieces, which is rare, especially after being moved around and displayed,” says Perlman. “It’s something everyone would just pass by all the time, but it’s a piece of history. We also have an image of it outside the town hall in 1900 with women posing by it.”

This exhibit is opening at a perfect time – 150 years since the Civil War – and the exhibit opens just days before Armed Forces Day.

Cincinnati Museum Center is located at 1301 Western Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45203. You can reach them at 513.287.7000, by email at or visit their website at