WEST HAVEN, Conn. -- For a relatively new museum, the West Haven Veterans Museum and Learning Center has a really encouraging challenge: It has more uniforms and memorabilia -- from at least as far back as the Civil War -- than it could possibly display.
But the effort to enhance the Hood Terrace museum's ability to display its collection got a nice push this past week: Macy's donated two pallets of mannequins -- 40 in all -- that once were diplayed in Macy's flagship store in New York.
They soon will be dressed as soldiers from eras dating back to the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, as well as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The mannequins, which Susan DeGrand Conlan, president of museum benefactor John DeGrand & Son, arranged for Macy's to donate, will allow the museum to better display uniforms that currently are in storage, said Frank Chasney, the museum's vice president.
"We had hundreds of uniforms ... sitting up in a loft" of the the 9,000-square-foot museum in a loaned former DeGrand & Son warehouse building, said Chasney, an East Haven resident. "They aren't even displayed."
That's because many of the old ones are too fragile to just put out on the floor on hangers and even the newer ones could previously only be hung on hangers on a wall.
With mannequins to display them on, those uniforms now can be moved right down to the museum floor, posed and even displayed on top of the museum's existing display cases, essentially expanding the museum's usable display area.
Soon, people will "get to see them at eye level," said Conlan.
Macy's also donated some display cases and told Conlan that if the museum wants more mannequins, Macy's can provide them.
She said she initially sent letters to both Macy's and Nordstrom and Macy's quickly responded.
What apparently didn't hurt is that the Macy's official who got in touch with Conlan is an ex-Marine.
While the mannequins once were on display in Macy's flagship store, they had been in storage in a warehouse in Keasbey, N.J., Conlan said. John DeGrand & Son -- now in its fourth generation of local family ownership -- sent a truck down Wednesday to pick them up.
The gift is appreciated by the people who run the museum.
"I'm tickled," said West Haven Veterans Council President Lori Grenfell, a member of the museum board -- and the person who first asked if Conlan knew where the museum could get some mannequins.
"I asked Sue three or four weeks ago if she knew anyone who had mannequins -- and the next thing I knew, I get a call ... that Sue has mannequins."
"The uniforms look so much better when they're on a mannequin then when they hanging on a wall," said Grenfell, a Vietnam veteran.
The museum, created in 2010 through efforts that began with then-Commissioner of Public Works Beth Sabo, initially was meant to house historical pieces from the 102nd Infantry Regiment and the New Haven Grays, a protective force formed after the War of 1812.
It's focus was expanded as it was developed, however, and it now represents veterans of all wars. The museum is entirely run by volunteers "but it's a hobby with us," said Chasney. "We LOVE what we do!"
West Haven, home to a VA Connecticut Healthcare System hospital, has more than its share of veterans -- many of whom have old uniforms, weapons and memorabilia that they -- or their families and heirs -- have chosen to donate.
Besides the uniforms, the museum's collection houses everything, from weaponry of various vintages to a Vietnam-era jeep to carefully displayed memorabilia from Nazi Germany and imperial Japan -- and even the top of a wing off an old Japanese Zero plane.
Beginning Monday, the museum will begin its annual series of visits by West Haven fifth-graders, who will make field trips both to the museum and the West Haven Historical Society's Ward-Heitmann House at 277 Elm St., Grenfell said. Ward-Heitmann is West Haven's oldest surviving structure.
Fifty students a day will visit the museum during a 10-day period -- about 500 in all, said Grenfell, who is in charge of group tours for the museum.
Admission to the museum is free. It is open Wednesdays and Fridays from noon to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.