Exhibit at Hoover contrasts official, nonofficial views of World War I in England
If appealing to a man’s patriotic duty failed to send him running to the recruiting office, appealing to his sense of shame might work. Above, an embarrassed father is cornered by a question from his daughter.
While the current installation in the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion may focus on England in the throes of World War I, no one should dismiss its theme as irrelevant or untimely: It's about a government anxious to put a positive spin on a bloody conflict in order to ensure a steady supply of soldiers.
The exhibit "Never Such Innocence: British Images of the First World War" features official posters of the British government alongside nonofficial photographs, art and poetry from soldiers on the front lines. Students in History and the Arts: Modern Britain, taught last quarter by Peter Stansky, professor emeritus of history, served as guest curators of the exhibit. It debuted Jan. 10 and runs through March 1.
The students wrote the informational tags and chose the images, drawing from collections in the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, but also incorporating original etchings on loan from the Cantor Arts Center and poems penned by British soldiers themselves that are permanently kept at Green Library.
On certain occasions, Hoover will invite students to assemble an exhibit, and Stansky—also the honorary curator of the institution's British Labour Collection—first suggested the idea several years ago for the current installation.
Collaborating with Hoover staff is both a hands-on learning experience and an opportunity to interact with primary sources. As always, exhibits are meant to be educational and politically neutral, according to staff. "The materials speak for themselves," said deputy archivist Linda Bernard.
Visitors who enter the pavilion during the current exhibit are greeted by a recruitment poster featuring a black-and-white photo of a sea of smiling soldiers waving with their hats off. "Come & join this happy throng," the poster reads. "Off to the front."
Other posters from the archives appeal to duty, honor, patriotism and the protection of women and children. One portrays a father at home with his rosy-cheeked daughter perched on his lap. She asks, "Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?" A dour look on the man's face implies that he'll have to admit he never served.
Many other posters appeal to, or attack, a man's masculinity. "Join the Army—It's a Man's Life," proclaims a poster depicting a uniformed soldier standing in rugged countryside. Another shows a dark-haired woman pointing to a besieged and burning city. "Will you go or must I?" she demands of the man next to her.
Kathryn Kilner, a senior double majoring in history and human biology, said the opportunity to work on the exhibit was the main reason she took Stansky's class. "I've been interested in art museums and the way things are preserved and presented for a long time," she said.
Junior Panayiota Christidis said she joined the class because she was interested in learning about history through art and literature. She wrote the exhibit tags for a trench publication written by British troops stationed in Ypres, Belgium, called Wipers Times. The soldiers filled its pages with poems and short stories that satirized the war and their living conditions.
"The newspaper was their chance to vent their frustrations," Christidis said.
Another source of firsthand accounts of the war was provided by artists on the front lines, Kilner explained. Established artists who went off to war sent their work home to private galleries, which gave the British government the idea to incorporate war art into larger propaganda campaigns.
Kilner organized a display case containing the work of Christopher R. W. Nevinson, who was sent to the front as one of England's official war artists in 1917. The six lithographic prints show the evolution of an aircraft, from its construction in the factory to flight, in the bold and inspiring Futurist style.
But even Nevinson became disillusioned with the war over time, and his art lost its optimistic luster. The British government even censored one of his later works because it depicted corpses.
Alongside copies of Wipers Times, the central display cases contain the poems "The Wasteland," by T. S. Eliot, and "Dulce Et Decorum Est," by Wilfred Owen, as well as a series of seven gruesome etchings by artist Percy Smith, titled "Dance of Death."
"This is the other war, the war the soldiers actually experienced," said Cissie Hill, Hoover's former exhibits coordinator. Hill came out of recent retirement to work with Stansky's students. Hill said that Britain did not draft soldiers into its army until 1916—two years after the war began—so the government had to convince citizens to volunteer.
"They had to promote a war that was really fun," Hill said.
The contrast between the war as it was depicted by the government and the way soldiers actually experienced it is apparent in the exhibit's multimedia corner. Two televisions are mounted side-by-side: one showing a reel of propaganda posters accompanied by patriotic music; the other displaying a rotation of war photos set to somber classical music. Visitors also can plug in provided headphones and listen to war poems read aloud.
"Never Such Innocence" is free and open to the public. The exhibit pavilion, located next to Hoover Tower, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Shelby Martin is an intern at the Stanford News Service.