Exhibits commemorating WWI at Virginia Museum of History & Culture reflect contemporary concerns

Exhibits commemorating WWI at Virginia Museum of History & Culture reflect contemporary concerns

Women across the country demanding equality. African Americans protesting racism. Government officials worried about Russian interference. Those descriptions may reflect today’s headlines. But they also mirror what was happening a century ago – as America was coming out of World War I. To commemorate the war’s centennial, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture is showcasing two exhibits – “WW1 America” and “The Commonwealth and the Great War.”

By Caitlin Barbieri

Women across the country demanding equality. African Americans protesting racism. Government officials worried about Russian interference.

Those descriptions may reflect today’s headlines. But they also mirror what was happening a century ago – as America was coming out of World War I.

To commemorate the war’s centennial, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture is showcasing two exhibits – “WW1 America” and “The Commonwealth and the Great War.”

“WW1 America” is a traveling exhibit from the Minnesota Historical Society; Richmond is the exhibit’s only stop on the East Coast. “The Commonwealth and the Great War” was created by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture to highlight Virginians in the war.

“Every museum in the country has a collection of World War I posters,” said Brian Horrigan, curator of “WW1 America.”

“They’re beautiful, they’re brilliant, but they don’t tell the story. They tell a visual story of a story, a story about persuasion and propaganda, but where’s the underbelly of that story?”

Horrigan started the project three years ago with the desire to “look more broadly at America and Americans.” He wanted to focus less on the horrors of the trenches and propaganda and instead examine the turmoil at home.

“There were darker sides of the American experience during this time,” Horrigan said. “Entire swaths of U.S cities [were] engulfed in racial conflagrations; more race riots and more violent race riots [occurred] in 1919 than any single year in the 1960s.”

Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed for societal reforms in recent years, African-Americans were fighting intense racism during World War I: The U.S. military then was segregated; blacks were relegated to menial jobs, and there were only two African-American combat units – both commanded by white officers. After the war, black soldiers returned to a segregated society; their heroism was ignored.

The exhibit also highlights issues of women’s suffrage – the #MeToo movement of its time – as well as workers’ rights and care for disabled veterans. In addition, during World War I, Americans were terrified of Russia, believing that the Bolsheviks were preparing to invade America. The exhibit shows how this fear developed into the Cold War.

Horrigan’s favorite part of the exhibit is a glass bowl used to pick men for the draft.

“The importance of this bowl as [a] national icon cannot be overstated,” Horrigan said. “I was fascinated by this draft bowl because I thought, there is a real turning-point moment where people began to feel that they are being counted, pinpointed and tracked by the United States government, and they could become just a number.”

Americans had never seen the government conduct such a massive call to arms. All men age 18 to 45 had to enter the draft. By the end of the war, nearly 20 percent of all draft-age men had served in the military.

The second exhibit, “The Commonwealth and the Great War,” focuses on the men drafted from Virginia and the families they left behind. Approximately 100,000 Virginians fought in World War I, and 3,700 died in service.

With the exception of Fort Myer and Fort A.P. Hill, all of Virginia’s major military bases were built during World War I. The exhibit includes pictures and stories from the men at these bases and highlights some of Virginia’s accomplished soldiers.

However, the exhibit honors more than Virginia’s soldiers. Pictures and artifacts reflect the significant role Virginia women played. Many women were nurses, helped organize fundraisers and made items to send to troops.

Horrigan said the Virginia Museum of History and Culture did an outstanding job complementing the traveling exhibit.

“What it has done with the second exhibit really makes this whole thing much more significant, giving it a personal Virginia side,” Horrigan said.

He also sees parallels between the museum’s contents​ and contemporary America.

“Every time you turn around in that exhibit, you see some connection to today,” Horrigan said.

If you go

“WW1 America” will be on display at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, 428 N. Boulevard in Richmond, until July 29th. “The Commonwealth and the Great War” will be available until November 18th. Museum admission is $10.

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