Organizing military memorabilia

November 11 is the time when we pause and remember the service men and women who serve their country. Over the course of their military careers, they may have accumulated some items that are personally and historically significant and when organising these items you’ll need to decide what to keep, how to store what you keep, what to part with, and where donations and sales of items you’re getting rid of can be made.

Military memorabilia, often referred to as militaria, can include any and all aspects of military life including:

  • Medals and ribbons
  • Uniforms, including rank insignia, buttons, lapel pins, etc.
  • Hats and helmets
  • Weapons (swords, bayonets, firearms)
  • Inert Ordnance (empty shell casings, etc.)
  • Equipment (compass, binoculars, canteen, etc.)
  • Books and training manuals
  • Photographs
  • Flags
  • Currency (both notes and coins)
  • Documents such as:
    • Identity badges and papers
    • Certificates of completed training
    • Maps
    • Journals
    • Charts
    • Posters
    • Letters and post cards
    • Postage stamps
    • Invitations and programs to official military functions

It is important to understand the significance and importance of items before deciding whether or not to keep and preserve them, donate them, or relegate them to the trash.

You may have the opportunity to work with a veteran to make these decisions. Be aware that certain objects may represent very powerful memories. It is important to respect the veteran’s desire to discuss, or not discuss, the items and the associated memories. Be very patient and understand that you may not be given an explanation of why the veteran wishes to keep a particular object, but respect his/her wishes.

If you do not have the chance to work with the owner of the militaria, there are other ways to determine the value and significance of the artifacts.

The Government and its Armed Forces: Many governments and armed forces have sections of their websites that deal specifically with military history. You will find information about medals and decorations, uniforms, as well as weapons and even vehicles. This is a great place to start for general information.

Veterans Associations: A veterans association may be able to provide you with details about your treasures including how they were used during military service and what those items meant to the serviceman/woman.

Local Historical Societies: Some historical societies have an interest in militaria. They may be able to provide some information about your items and how they related to the history of the local area. For example, your uncle who was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal may have been the only one in his county to receive one.

Online Auctions: EBay is a great place to get an idea of the monetary value of your collection. There are also military-specific online auctions sites, some dedicated to the militaria of specific countries or specific periods in history.

Collectors and Traders Groups: There are many military collector groups around the world. They hold shows and fairs where people can bring in their items for evaluation. Some members of these groups will also provide appraisals via email or videoconference.

Antique Dealers and Appraisers: If you have visited some online auctions and feel that your pieces may be worth quite a bit of money, it is best to pay for a professional appraisal. Search the American Society of Appraisers or a similar society in your country for an appraiser near you and remember to ask for references.

If you decide to keep your military memorabilia, it is important to properly preserve the items. Displaying military memorabilia can be a way to honour the men and women who proudly served their country and to help transfer family history from one generation to the next.

Here are a few examples of the way that military memorabilia can be displayed.

If you’ve decided to part with your militaria, adding letters, journals, and photos to the objects will contribute their relevance and credibility.

While museums may not be able to accept your donations, there are other groups that might be interested such as:

  • Local libraries
  • History or Military Studies departments of colleges and universities
  • Historical societies
  • Community Centres
  • Military Unit, Corps or Regimental museums
  • Veterans groups

Reenactment groups and theatre troupes may be interested in certain items, too. They may not take entire uniforms but the rank insignia, buttons, and pins may be helpful to them in re-creating period costumes.

A Note about Weapons

Many collections of military memorabilia contain weapons such as swords, knives, bayonets, and firearms. These may be antiques but they are still dangerous. Please seek out expert assistance when dealing with weapons and obey all laws and regulations.

Display swords, knives, and bayonets in locked display cases. A professional firearms expert should deactivate firearms prior to them being stored in a locked display cabinet.

If you decide to sell or donate these items, ensure you follow all laws and regulations for sale and transport. Be aware that you may have to pay extra fees for customs clearance and may be required to alert law enforcement officials that you are transporting weapons.

4 Comments for “Organizing military memorabilia”

  1. posted by JC on

    How timely. My mother is currently making shadow boxes memorializing my grandfather. His WWII medals were destroyed in a fire. When I contacted the Army for replacements, I was informed that due to a fire decades ago, several years of service records affecting thousands of servicemen were lost. They could not replace his medals because of that records loss.

  2. posted by IZ on

    JC: If she still has his DD214 (Discharge records) you may be able to recreate the medal rack. His awards and Medals should be listed on his DD214. Few people lose this document.

  3. posted by JC on

    IZ: Thanks for the tip. I’ll ask, but I believe it may have been a house fire that destroyed everything.

  4. posted by threadbndr on

    I have scanned my son’s DD214 to my cloud service. I think I’ll grab my husband and dad’s as well. Even though they are both deceased, I’d hate for what happened to the poster above to happen in my family.

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