Monday, July 31, 2017

At the Front, Behind the Scenes: The Work Before the Exhibit

One of the new exhibits at Morristown National Historical Park (MNHP), “Remembering A Forgotten War: Memories of War and Wartime by Soldiers, Civilians, and Collectors” examines materials from the Lloyd W. Smith Collection. One of the great things about doing an exhibit on a relatively unexamined collection is the freedom to let the exhibit ideas and themes find you. Since I was doing a solo exhibit, I had a free range to explore, examine, and report to the public aspects of the collection that I found most interesting and that would best express the mission of MNHP. However, it is also one of the more difficult aspects of an exhibit, having so many creative avenues. Originally, the hope was that the materials would have a distinctly “New Jersey” flavor and that the exhibit could link to local histories. Even a cursory examination of the materials proved that to be something of a dead-end as the most conclusive New Jersey connection was the collector Lloyd W. Smith himself. However, Smith’s collection did not disappoint. This blog post looks at the materials used for the exhibit, “Remembering A Forgotten War” and provides a behind the scenes for planning, prototyping, and executing the display. Going into this project, I knew I wanted to find a way to incorporate my interest of how World War One is remembered and how the documents express these ideas.

There are two boxes in the collection that Smith and later curators labeled as “World War” material with several interesting items that immediately caught my eye, specifically a correspondence series between James H. Manning of Albany and Eugene Brumaghim stationed in France with the Red Cross, and two letters from General Philippe Pétain. The two boxes provided a great starting point, but they did not lend themselves to a cohesive and complex exhibit. That balance, audience interest and historical nuance, became the thing that I was most after. I wanted to tell a story that was not just about combatants, politicians, or activities on the American Home Front, but rather encompassed all those aspects through the lens of methods of remembrance. 

After the two labeled boxes, I moved on to the microfilm, all 70 reels with hundreds of slides on each role. 

(drawer 1 of 4!)

I looked through the Morristown Manuscript Collection which has the entire collection indexed alphabetically, noting items that fell into my date range, roughly 1913 to 1920. By sifting through each item and document, (and every thank you note for dinners attended and foregone) that was from my time period it became clear that the act of collecting was a key element to the collection but also how historians understand the time period. This process also helped to fill in the gaps that occurred naturally through the initial cataloging by Smith. The “World War” folders contained letters and items with a military emphasis. The boxes that held manuscripts from Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and even Franklin Delano Roosevelt were self-contained because it made sense to keep them together. But if I hadn’t gone through the microfilm I would never have found them, and my exhibit would have been very different. 

By making an outline and eventually a finding aid (a detailed index of the collection) of the manuscripts from the 1913-1920 date range, three exhibit categories came about: items from combatants, items from non-combatants in America that discussed the conflict, and those who collected items and signatures (a very popular practice) of influential people. With these three sections of the possible exhibit established, I began shifting the focus of my secondary source research away from more general histories of the time-period to one with specific focuses that related to my documents. This included reading about the American Red Cross in France, theories of memory through objects and manuscripts, and creating exhibits in small museums and for archival collections. The result is the bibliography below. Once I accomplished most of the intellectual grunt work, the exhibit itself began to take shape.

     Lloyd W. Smith Collection. Morristown National Historical Park. Morristown, NJ.

     The Autograph Collection Formed by the late Col. James H. Manning Albany, N.Y. Catalog. The Anderson Galleries. New York NY. 1926. Hathi Trust Digital Library.

     Englund, Will. March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution. New York. NY. W. W. Norton & Company. 2017

     Faulkner, Richard Shawn. Pershing’s Crusaders: The American Soldiers in World War I. Lawrence. KS. University Press of Kansas. 2017.

     Hansen, Beth. Great exhibits!: an exhibit planning and construction handbook for small museums. Lanham. Rowman and Littlefield. 2017.

     Irwin, Julia F. Making the world safe: The American Red Cross and a nation’s humanitarian awakening. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 2013.

     Keene, Jennifer D. “Remembering the ‘Forgotten War’: American Historiography on World War I.” The Historian. Phi Alpha Theta. 2016.

     Lacher-Feldman, Jessica. Exhibits in Archives and special collections libraries. Chicago. Society of American Archivists. 2013.

     Meyer, G. J. The World Remade: America in World War I. New York. NY. Penguin Random House. 2016.

     Piehler, G. Kurt. Remembering War the American Way. Washington. Smithsonian Press. 1995.

     Saunders, Nicholas J. Matters of conflict: material culture, memory, and the First World War. London. Routledge. 2004.

     Trout, Steven. On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919-1941. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press. 2010.

     Winter, Jay. Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth-Century. New Haven. Yale University Press. 2006

     Winter, Jay and Emmanuel Siran, eds. War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1999.

     World War One Remembered. Fort Washington. PA. Eastern National. 2017.

This blog post by Claire Du Laney, North Carolina State/University of NC, Chapel Hill. 

*This is part one of a two-part series. Stay tuned.

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