ARLINGTON, Va. – The office of Miranda Summers Lowe is non-descript in its functional ubiquity. It mirrors many other offices along the same narrow, behind-the-scenes corridors of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. There's a sturdy desk against a wall. A computer screen sits on the desk, a few papers idly laying nearby. A bookshelf stands to the side while the overhead fluorescent lights gleam brightly. The room is solidly "1960s institutional, government office," as Summers-Lowe describes it.
However, the doorframe placard announcing name and job title is what makes the office stand out against others in the hallway. In plain block letters it lists her name followed by two seemingly different job titles: Curator. Door Gunner.
But for Summers Lowe, the two titles, which represent both her military and civilian careers, are intertwined.
Currently a captain serving as the intelligence officer with the District of Columbia Army National Guard's 74th Troop Command, Summers Lowe works on the civilian side as the curator for modern military history at the Smithsonian's American history museum. In her civilian job she works on preserving service members' stories, primarily focusing on those who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas after 9/11.
"We're really just getting started on building [the history of] post-9/11," she said. "Don't think your story isn't worth being preserved. Your gear, your uniforms, your little green notebook you took on patrol with you, what you experienced, that's all important."
That's the curator part. The door gunner part, that's from her 2005 Iraq deployment where she served with an aviation battalion. Initially part of the supply section, a change in the unit's operational tempo meant a greater need for door gunners and she volunteered.
"It sounded interesting and exciting," she said. "And helicopters are really cool. I was a specialist and like 22. I don't think it was until we got out there that I realized just how important the mission [of door gunner] was."
The days were long, though she said she was glad for the experience.
"I can't imagine it any other way," Summers Lowe said. "That unit had great esprit de corps. If a mission came back in late, everybody would stay and go out and greet the [flight crew]. If it was cargo, they'd help unload it and carry it back. Even though some of those things are supposed to be the crew chief's job, everyone did it together. I'm so glad I got to have that perspective."
Those are the sorts of stories she said she's looking to gather and share in her work at the Smithsonian. Though, it's not only service members' stories. It's also physical objects that illuminate those stories and experiences.
"There's something really important about the physical object and having that experience of seeing it on display or interacting with it in other ways, like a 3-D scan," Summers Lowe said. "Our lived experience is very physical and those objects tell a story."
Many times those objects, even mundane ones, can be representative of something larger, which is often what makes them important, she said.
For Summers Lowe, that can be exemplified in a simple uniform belt she was issued while in Iraq. Looking it over, she said she noticed it was made in Anderson, Indiana.
"I grew up in Muncie, Indiana, and Anderson is an even tinier town like 15 minutes up the road," she said. "Our [high school] sports teams would play against Anderson. I just developed such a thing for that belt because it was just this little piece of home. I wore it through that tour and I brought it with me through Officer Candidate School."
While the belt may or may not be something considered for display at the Smithsonian, it brings out other questions about the objects needed to tell the story.
"One of the things we look at is how are these wars different [from previous conflicts]," Summers Lowe said. "How do we need to tell that story and what objects tell that story?"
Serving in Iraq, as well as another deployment to the Horn of Africa, allows her some insight into that question, she said.
"If you've experienced those things, I think it does help," she said.
For Summers Lowe, the desire to serve in the military came at a young age.
"I knew really young I wanted to be in the Army," she said. "My parents are both college professors. In high school, when I said ‘I don't think I'm going to go to college, I think I'm going to join the Army,' that didn't go over too well."
Her parents urged her to go to college first, that the Army would still be there when she finished. She started school, but enlisted in the Indiana Army National Guard along the way, taking a year off to go to training.
Her love of history, however, came even earlier.
"It was something I was always really interested in," she said. "I think I blame my family on a lot of it. Our idea of a vacation was driving out to a Civil War battlefield, or a museum or a national park. I think I was in high school before I figured out that many other families went to theme parks or the beach."
In college she majored in history and government with an eye toward teaching. She enjoyed the teaching part, she said, but felt the classroom wasn't quite where she wanted to be. A professor suggested she look into public history.
"Public history is more geared to anything trying to engage the public on history," said Summers Lowe. "That could be anything from museum exhibits to historic preservation. When people interact with history, it's usually through public history."
Graduate school came later, where she focused on public humanities. That led to an internship at the Smithsonian.
It was those experiences, combined with her Army Guard background, that set her down the path to museum curator.
At a party, a friend introduced her to somebody else who was serving in the Army Guard. During that conversation, she learned of an open position with the District of Columbia National Guard organizing a museum focused on the D.C. Guard. But, the position was only open to those in the Guard. Summers Lowe applied.
"I ended up holding that position for about five years," she said. "We put together a small museum. We made a little history booklet so it could be given to every new recruit who came in."
That, combined with deployment experience, led her to the U.S. Army Center of Military History where she worked on the history of operations in Afghanistan.
"The Army CMH is an amazing organization," she said. "They write [unit] histories, they write history textbooks. They run the Army museum system and they're building the National Museum of the U.S. Army. They supervise all the military history detachments that deploy and record unit and theatre history. It's just an amazing place with amazing energy."
She spent a little more than two years on orders there.
"I was there as a mobilized reservist," she said. "I couldn't stay there forever."
However, the Smithsonian had an open position it needed to fill. She applied, though she felt her chances were slim.
"Not many people get hired at the Smithsonian very often," Summers Lowe said. "I don't think I even really considered I might be coming back here [after her internship] someday. I was beyond shocked when they called me in for an interview and I didn't think I'd end up being their pick."
Perhaps her favorite part of the job, she said, is learning more about the museum's holdings.
"I'm still very new and a lot of what you do as a new curator is walk into the storage areas, put your gloves on and start opening drawers and see what you've got," Summers Lowe said. "Then, you go back into the catalogue and learn a little bit more about [the objects]."
That often means learning something new each day, she said.
"At least once a day I get this huge sense of wonder as I'll pull something out and I don't know what it is and I'll learn something new," Summers Lowe said.
Her position at the Smithsonian has also made her better in her military role as an officer.
"It's made me a better long-term planner," she said. "It's a huge project management responsibility. You're coordinating everything from light and sound to what objects you need. Do you have those objects? Does somebody need to go get them?"
Having served in the Army Guard also allows Summers Lowe a greater ability to connect with service members as part of her curatorial duties.
"I think having been there [in Iraq] makes a difference and having those shared experiences makes a difference," she said, adding she's also been surprised where she's met fellow Guard members in a civilian capacity.
"I love the random Guard run-ins," Summers Lowe said. "When I got hired here, I went in to get my security badge made and a Soldier I had worked with before was the one who made it. The Guard, in particular, is good because you meet so many different people doing so many different things."
It's also helped her get to the Smithsonian. And for that, she said she feels extremely lucky.
"I'm really so blessed that so much of my Guard experience put me in exactly the field I wanted to go," she said.