Reflections on three Boston World War One exhibitions

Posted on on 14 January 2015
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Susan Werbe has written a piece for Centenary News reflecting on three WWI exhibitions currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Boston Athenaeum; and the Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Reflections on three Boston World War One exhibitions

So much of the history, hopes, and passions of World War I are captured in the poster art of 1914 to 1918.  We are fortunate to have two exhibitions of poster art on display in Boston.  The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) and the Boston Athenaeum have mounted exhibitions of propaganda posters, in each case from nations on both sides of the conflict.  The Massachusetts Historical Society provides a more intimate look at the war in its exhibit, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War, which features two women who volunteered with the American Red Cross in France during the last year of the war.  These three exhibits – each in their own way – provide a powerful and thoughtful introduction to the centenary.

The Museum of Fine Arts

The exhibits at the MFA and the Boston Athenaeum make perfect companion pieces, including the titles which complement each other.  Over There!  Posters from World War I at the Museum features 50 posters which have not been exhibited since 1938.  Curator Patrick Murphy chose the posters from John T. Spaulding’s extensive collection of World War I propaganda posters, which were given to the Museum in 1937.  The posters in this exhibition are divided into two groups: American posters and European posters.  Murphy provides thoughtful text panels throughout the exhibit that place the posters in a broader historical context.

It is interesting to compare and contrast posters from the European combatant countries and the United States.  The British posters are the most colorful of the Europeans and carry a range of messages – from recruitment posters, including the iconic Kitchener poster, to those encouraging civilian support and participation in the war effort.  The French and German posters tended to employ a more subdued and somber palette (often to greater artistic effect), and in the main are devoted to exhorting citizens to support the war effort through the purchase of war bonds.  The two posters from Austria-Hungary reminded one of Vienna’s early 20th Century Secession Movement, with the use of brilliant colors, and arts and craft school of decorative arts.

Moving to posters from the United States, from 1917 and 1918, one is struck that the same themes, which appeared in European posters – especially British – from the war’s beginning are found in American posters (in fact, Uncle Sam replaces Lord Kitchener in near-identical recruitment pose).  The war is presented as a “defensive war” - an argument certainly made more challenging, given the geography of the U.S, i.e. thousands of miles away from the war.  Several U.S. recruitment posters show New York’s iconic images such as the State of Liberty threatened by images of German planes dropping bombs. The torpedoing and sinking of the Lusitania figure prominently in others.

The Boston Athenaeum

The Boston Athenaeum chose the title Over Here: World War I Posters from Around the World for its exhibition of a selection from its extensive poster collection, which dates back to December 1914 when Charles Knowles Bolton, Librarian of the Athenaeum, began to order posters from ”government agencies, book sellers, and private collectors in England, France, and America.” 

The Athenaeum’s Catharina Slautterback, curator of prints and photographs, not only chose the posters from over 2,000 posters, postcards, magazines, and battlefield relics, but also provided accompanying text for each of the posters.  Visitors to the exhibit are given a discussion and an historical context for each poster.   Slautterback also authored a well-written and wonderfully designed booklet, which serves to deepen a visitor’s experience.  The history and acquisition of the Athenaeum’s collection is discussed, including the dearth of German posters during Bolton’s tenure as Librarian, who “was staunchly pro-Ally”.

Over Here exhibits posters and war memorabilia from a wide range of countries – English, Scottish, French, Australian German, Russian, French Canadian, Italian, French colonies.  Included is an Irish poster titled “The Call to Arms.  Irishmen Don’t You Hear It?”  The accompanying text briefly relates the history of the 1916 Easter Rising, which happened two months before the poster appeared. Needless to say, for many Irish citizens, ‘The Call to Arms’ might have held quite a different resonance from that portrayed in the poster.  One is struck anew by the multi-layered, complex nature of this first world conflict.  The world-wide nature of the war is inescapable, encapsulated in the two rooms of the exhibit.

The poster exhibitions demonstrate the power of propaganda in time of war.  Almost all of the posters illustrate the macro portrait of the conflict, with iconic images that represent each country’s culture and society.  (One exception to this “macro view” appears in the Athenaeum’s exhibit - a poster that advertises “Fatherless Children in France”, a relief organization founded in 1915.  The companion text tells the story of the Athenaeum staff “adopting” a young French boy through this organization, sending gifts, letters, and money; they continued his support for seven years.  Suddenly the war and what it meant takes on a more personal scale.)   

A common thread that runs through the posters in both exhibitions, regardless of their country of origin, is the urgent need to defend the homeland.  Author Christopher Clark in his book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, discusses each combatant nation’s need at the outset of the war to convince its citizenry that this war was a “defensive” war.  The propaganda posters in both exhibitions graphically illustrate one aspect of this effort.

Massachusetts Historical Society

The Massachusetts Historical Society’s exhibition is very personal as it features the letters of Nora B. Saltonstall and the letters and photographs of Margaret Hall, two young women from prominent Massachusetts families.  It is an exhibition that takes the viewer on two women’s journeys during the last year of the war, and in Margaret Hall’s case, into the fields and ruins of the war’s aftermath. 

Several war propaganda posters introduce the context of the exhibit, serving as a gateway (both literally and figuratively) into the exhibit itself.  The posters carry hortatory messages – recruiting soldiers, encouraging the planting of victory gardens, urging the purchase of war bonds and saving stamps.  In every instance, regardless of the message, the images used to deliver the message are women, from the image of Joan of Arc to the iconic representation of Columbia in the form of a flag-draped goddess.

The first room and smaller exhibit tells the story of Nora Saltonstall.  Her photographs and letters home to her family bring to a very personal level the war that women experienced as Red Cross volunteers. Saltonstall was a wealthy young woman from a Boston “Brahmin” family who chose to volunteer with the Red Cross, first in the United States in 1916 and 1917 and then in France, where she was awarded the Croix de Guerre because of her service during the German Spring Offensive of that year.

One of her letters to her father conveys a very clear picture of a young woman determined to participate in the war effort.  “Don’t look upon me as headstrong and seeking excitement; I’m not that, but I have been hunting for a job which is real work and which is a direct help, even if it’s the tiniest drop in the bucket, to the ultimate close of the war.” (Saltonstall survived the very real dangers of the war, only to die of typhoid fever during travels in the western USA some months after her return.)

Margaret Hall also served in the Red Cross, and then stayed on after the war photographing the Western Front from Switzerland to the English Channel.  Her photographs, a portion of which are displayed here, illustrate both her world of the Red Cross tents behind the front lines during the last year of the war and the silent trenches and destroyed villages after the Armistice.  There is an eerie, almost ghost-like quality to several of her post-war photographs.  There is some of the detritus of war still remaining in the trenches photographs, but gone are the men – living and dead – the mud, the rats.  It is left to the viewer’s imagination (or memory of other images – photographs taken during the war) to bring back the horror that occurred there.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has published The Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall, edited by Margaret R. Higonnet.  The book, which is available at the exhibition, is the perfect companion to the exhibition.  Higonnet, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut, who has written extensively on the literature of World War One, offers a thoughtful frame of reference for Hall’s writings and photographs, and in addition provides a chronology of the war, placing Hall into it during 1918 and 1919.

Upcoming Companion Events

All three institutions have offered companion programming to their exhibitions.  The Boston Athenaeum’s curator has given monthly gallery talks and sponsored a performance of The Great War Theatre Project: Messengers of a Bitter Truth, of which I am the executive producer.  The Museum of Fine Arts has scheduled a concert of music, The Song of the Mud: Music and Poetry from and inspired by World War One and the Massachusetts Historical Society will host two concerts in January: Over There: The Boys Who Went to Fight and the Women Who Endured and Here Comes America-WWI Performance by the Boston Saxophone Quartet.  These two concerts will “explore the cultural and musical history of the time.”

More information is available on the respective organizations' websites:

The Boston Athenaeum

Over Here: World War I Posters from around the World

September 10, 2014 - February 1, 2015

Massachusetts Historical Society

Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War

June 12, 2014 to January 24, 2015

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Over There! Posters from World War I

July 26, 2014 through June 14, 2015