Go See the WW1 America Exhibit!

It’s not quite the “forgotten war” that the Korean War is, but World War I is certainly overshadowed in American memory by WWII, the Civil War, Vietnam, and the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, the United States’ relatively short involvement in “the Great War” intersected with some of the most significant social, cultural, political, and economic shifts in American history. And now that we’re into that centenary, there’s no shortage of opportunities for Americans to learn more about this chapter in their national history.

WW1 America signFor example, I hope that many people will seize the chance to see WW1 America, a major new exhibit that debuted over the weekend at the Minnesota History Center — but is meant to go on tour. (It was developed in conjunction with the National World War One Museum, the National Constitution Center, and museums in Texas and California.) In addition to the exhibit, artist David Geister is painting a triptych mural that will eventually include 100 Americans connected to WWI. The Minnesota Historical Society is also sponsoring a wide array of events throughout the coming months, from a lecture series (“Forgotten Stories of WW1“) to a two-hour songs-and-stories event last Friday at the Fitzgerald Theater that will be re-broadcast next week on Minnesota Public Radio.

I already thought highly of the History Center, and the larger Minnesota Historical Society, but WW1 America more than met my expectations when I went to a special preview last Thursday night and then took 21 Bethel students (and our seven-year old twins) back on Saturday morning for the official opening.

Most of all, I’d emphasize that WW1 America is more about the second half of its title than the first. While there are artifacts of war — including a field ambulance and images of masks made for soldiers mutilated by shrapnel — and you’ll hear the stories of soldiers, pilots, and other combatants, you won’t find the simulated trench, cabinets full of rifles and uniforms, or detailed diagrams of battles and campaigns that feature in most military history museums. Instead, the war becomes the window through which we gaze at a turbulent, transitional period in U.S. history.

I kept thinking that my Americanist colleagues should bring their students for a tour — or that our alumni teaching 7th or 11th grade U.S. history classes should schedule field trips. I don’t know how better to get a 60-minute introduction to civil rights, the labor movement, women’s suffrage, immigration, the First Amendment, sports, and entertainment in the Progressive Era.

I also appreciate how the exhibit design reinforces the liveliness of early 20th century America. Bright colors predominate, not sepia tones. Where you do see black-and-white images, they’re moving across screens of various sizes: motion pictures play a major role in the exhibit, from Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford films to a stunning 1918 cartoon by Winsor McCay that animates the sinking of the Lusitania.

The whole exhibit bustles with dense layers of sights (image and text) and sounds that seem to burst through the relatively confined corridors of the space. It evokes the feel of overstuffed cities filling up with migrants from southern Europe and the American South. (The display on the Great Migration is a particular highlight, and I was also happy to learn the story of José de la Luz Sáenz, a Mexican American schoolteacher who published his war diary in 1933.)

Of course, that does perhaps obscure the fact that America was only just becoming a majority-urban society in the 1910s; many of those who fought the war had never seen a city before. And it can make for an overwhelming sensory experience. My son is particularly sensitive to lots of noise and told me twice that he felt “antsy” just being there… and that was during the relative quiet of Saturday morning. Crammed together with hundreds of others on the preview night, I started to feel claustrophobic.

But that seems intentional. On the local morning news yesterday, a reporter asked one of the exhibit designers what kind of feedback he’d already received from visitors. “People are overwhelmed,” he said. “And I kind of like that.” It’s meant to be too much to handle, at least in one visit.

Of course, even a million-dollar exhibit covering thousands of square feet has to leave some ground relatively underexplored. It’s certainly disappointing to see so little Minnesota history in an exhibit debuting in St. Paul. I don’t mean to be parochial, and I understand that this is a touring exhibit developed in partnership with other state and national organizations. But from anti-German passions and governmental censorship to the triumph of the suffrage movement to the spread of the “Spanish Flu” to radical politics in cities and farms… well, WW1 Minnesota was WW1 America in a nutshell.

(At least on opening day, we did get to attend “Call Me Joby,” a monologue in which actor Mason Henderson played the role of Joby Covington, a St. Paul native who experienced racial discrimination in the Army.)

And this is hardly the first interpretation of WWI to pay relatively little attention to religion. There is a Billy Sunday display, however, which inspired me to write a longer piece for The Anxious Bench on that evangelist’s disturbingly passionate embrace of the war effort.

You can’t please everyone. (I’m sure some were bored by all the baseball artifacts, which delighted me.) But you can spur further exploration and discussion. And by that token, WW1 America succeeds marvelously — both the exhibit itself, and the associated events.

Indeed, it was Geister’s artist talk and Henderson’s monologue that connected most with my daughter. Hearing that Native American soldiers weren’t even citizens they were fighting to protect and that black soldiers were treated better by the French than by their own officers led Lena and me to have a twenty-minute conversation about racism, past and present.

If you are in the Twin Cities, you can see WW1 America from now until Labor Day. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

By the way, I’ll be giving a free lecture on WWI memorials next Thursday, April 20, 7pm at the New Ulm Public Library.