Sharing Your Story For The Sake of the Future

Carmen Dunn

Spanish-born philosopher and poet George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” has been paraphrased several ways, all with a focus on being aware of, appreciating, and respecting the importance of significant events in our lives, as individuals and as a whole. For me, the quote has always had a “doom and gloom” feel to it. I’ve taken the statement and re-phrased it in my own way for the Gallatin History Museum, something a little more gentle yet sincere to embrace the chapter of COVID-19 we muddled and struggled through, and to prepare for what is predicted that we will inevitably repeat: "Those who have experienced the past are asked to share it for the sake of the future."

The Gallatin History Museum is one of Bozeman’s ultimate treasure chests of real stories. Our exhibits are stories, our bookstore shelves are filled with real and imaginary stories. Our gem is the research library, where among court reports, maps and other documents more dry in nature, are very real, personal stories of experiences in Southwest Montana and the greater Bozeman community.

Before we had to leave our historic home away from home, the staff of GHM created the Gallatin County Memoir Project. We cast it as an anchor for the community, for anyone to share in great length or in a simple sentence what the virus and the shutdown meant to that person. The beauty of a journal or diary is its pure vulnerability, the pure heart and thoughts of an individual in a time that he or she may or may not understand. There is remarkable beauty in these stories. Remarkable beauty in its vulnerability can be the greatest comfort and gift for us all.

We were amazed at both the immediate and ongoing contributions. Amazed, delighted, amused and sometimes a little heartbroken. What a fantastic community we have! We read stories from children filled with their wonderful innocent outlook on their world of trials and tribulations with siblings and pets and chores, yet they were trying to express some very real fears as well. We read stories from the elders in our community who had struggled through many hardships in their lives and this was just another...but not just another; it was one that seemed to lay right by their doorstep, waiting to take them. We received letters from amateur philosophers and historians offering insight and samples of what we are condemned to repeat. What is most important here, our community was willing and able to share very personal stories without fear or judgement.

The Gallatin History Museum’s mission is to “preserve, promote and foster the history of Gallatin and Southwest Montana.” It was our responsibility, pleasure, and honor to reach out to all of you to share your stories with us. It was an equal honor that our colleagues in neighboring communities reached out to us to create their own memoir project. As museums we were in this together - no competition, only the desire to capture for our community a most unusual and most unique chapter in our histories.

I always felt from the beginning of the shutdown, when the sun warmed us, when the grass became green and flowers and trees bloomed, we in Montana would put aside our fears to return to the mountains and the river, to our gardens, our churches and our neighbors (I know of at least one house cat who has looked forward to that moment much longer than any of us). We joke how our summers are so short, but I think while this virus has not affected our state as much as larger, harder hit states, we have come to deeply appreciate that life is too short. Living life isn’t just about getting out there every day and making the most of every moment. It’s also about recording those moments, to share with our neighbors and children and grandchildren and friends. I believe it is the simple nature of the universe that we will always in many ways, repeat history. If we can record our experiences through a most unusual and difficult time, perhaps we will be offering advice on how to make it through, perhaps our words will offer comfort that we can overcome what is scary, frustrating, ridiculous (e.g. underground toilet paper bunkers). Perhaps we can come closer to understanding the true meaning of gratitude, and know how to count our blessings.

What I know will be ongoing is the curiosity of our community, people who will come to the museum’s research center now and years from now, to discover how Gallatin County and Southwest Montana looked at this time and how we cared for each other.
On behalf of the staff of the Gallatin History Museum and our colleagues across the state, I would encourage you to take a moment to record a memory, jot down a note, draw a picture, or give us a call to share your experience of COVID-19. It isn’t just about preserving, promoting and fostering history. Your words may very well - unbeknownst to you - be of comfort and be of education not just for generations to come, but for that one person today who comes into our library and needs to hear your words.

The Gallatin County Memoir Project is alive and well, and we most welcome your contributions. You can send your stories, drawings and thoughts to Over the next few months, we will start sharing with you what we’ve received so far.

From all of us at the Gallatin History Museum, please take very good care.