by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s unfortunate and still a bit puzzling that the centennial of the First World War has largely been under-recognized. A commission was created by an act of Congress in 2013 to commemorate the “war to end all wars” and “The United States World War I Centennial Commission” does list events that have been and will be held as part of the centennial. PBS’s excellent series The American Experience had an entry on “The Great War” that was released last year.
It does seem, however, that, in much of our media and in many places, interest in the war is notably lacking. Perhaps a good deal of the reason is that, while America’s involvement at the end of the conflict turned the tide of a massive stalemate into an Allied victory, President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic program for a League of Nations that would prevent future conflict was decisively rejected by Congress and had little support from Americans.
Wilson was largely incapacitated by a stroke suffered not long after he returned from France where he personally led negotiations for the armistice and pushed for the League and Republicans took advantage of the political climate to seize the presidency and consolidate control of Congress in the 1920 elections. President Warren G. Harding, an undistinguished figure whose administration was mired in scandal before he died during his term in 1923, campaigned under a vague slogan of a “return to normalcy.”
This was not just a renunciation of Wilson and the Democratic Party and its platform, but also seemed to be a desire to leave memories of the war behind and a determined forward-thinking attitude. Memorialization and commemoration of World War I did exist, but it was low-key and insubstantial compared to that of the Civil War and, later, the Second World War. Little has changed and the current political climate certainly has added to the tepid interest generally found in the centenary of the conflict.
The Homestead has, however, instituted a few major programmatic efforts to commemorate the war. Last year, we had a lecture series that dealt with the war years, as well as an exhibit about America’s entry and lead up to direct involvement in the battle to defeat Germany. Now, as we lead up to 11 November, the day the Germans surrendered and the conflict all but ended (there was fighting that did continue and other episodes, such as in post-revolutionary Russia, that sprung up), a second exhibit in our Homestead Gallery auditorium has been installed.
Remaining up until mid-November and through what is now Veterans Day, the display is another stellar example of collaboration by members of the museum’s public programs and collections staff in the planning and execution of this compelling look at how the nation celebrated and commemorated the war. Moreover, this has been done through the use of museum artifacts, striking visuals, activities and other components that engage different senses.
Taking a cue from Dadaism, a modernist approach to art that came about partially as a reaction, especially in Europe, to the horrors of the war, Programs Coordinator Jennifer Scerra designed text panels and other display elements that reflect the “cut-up” aesthetic of Dada art. This approach draws the eye to the material and, hopefully, is an engaging way for visitors to take in the content.
Programs Manager Gennie Truelock oversaw the development of themes, including the role of women, the place of the war in popular culture, the situation involving returning soldiers, and the patriotic fervor represented in celebration and commemoration, that give an excellent overview of what took place at the end of the war and in the years that followed.
Collections Coordinator Michelle Villarreal and Collections Assistant Amanda Foster pulled artifacts and set them up for display in ways that maximizes visibility while protecting these objects for the two months that they will be on view. Other staff contributed in various ways to the exhibit, so that this is truly a group effort.
Especially interesting to me are the many representations of the conflict shown on a large wall across from the entrance to the space (here we try to provide something visually alluring to get our guests to come into the room and view the display.) Whether it involves cartoons about the destiny tied to the conflict or to the plight of returning soldiers in finding jobs; the striking colorful cover of a piece of sheet music celebrating America’s defeat of the Kaiser and Germany; or the role of women as “Amazons in Overalls” working hard on the domestic front, there is a collage of excellent material in a non-linear (that is, Dadaist) presentation to get visitors’ attentions.
The aspects of celebration and commemoration are made manifest through text panels and artifacts in cases and pedestals, showing, as examples, victory parades, a “victory march” piece of sheet music, and the dedication of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to soldiers who fought in the war.
Related directly to the Homestead is a metal coin bank given by Laura Gonzalez Temple to her son, Walter, in the likeness of General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force. Mrs. Temple gave the bank to her middle son after the family stood with the massive crowds in downtown Los Angeles for a welcoming parade for Pershing, in whose honor the city renamed Central Park to Pershing Square.
Also tied to the Temple family is the extraordinary monument from Walter Temple and his three sons, who all attended military school (as so many American boys did in the aftermath of the war), to Joseph Leon Kauffman, the brother of Walter’s business manager. Kauffman died in the “Battle of Argonne Forest,” part of the final offensive that ended the conflict. The memorial, originally located at the Temple oil lease property near Montebello, was moved, in 1930, to Temple City Park when it remains.
The museum collection includes a photo of the dedication ceremony, the script read by orator Johnstone Jones, and documents associated with Kauffman’s death and the notification given to his family, especially his mother. A letter from Ernestine Kauffman to Walter Temple is especially poignant as she informed him of Joseph’s passing.
A section dedicated to “realization” and “readjustment” goes over the immediate postwar period in terms of an economic downturn, the marginalization of minorities and immigrants, and other issues led to confrontation over the concept of “normalcy” and how that was perceived by varying constituencies in American society.
While many Americans were drawn to conservative ideas and ideals, as the dominance of the G.O.P. in national politics shows, others were questioning the approaches of conservatives through political action, unionization and artistic expression, including such literature. Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929, is just one example and German war veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel All Quiet on the Western Front was widely read in America and became a landmark film two years later.
To allow for different experiences of the display, there are not only the traditional displays of text panels and historic artifacts, but an interesting activity in which visitors can make Dadaist collages and poems.
The instructions for the poem are from 1920 and by artist Tristan Tzara, who encouraged people to cut words from a news or magazine article, put them in a bag and shake them, and then put them together in the order drawn. Tzara proclaimed that “the poem will be like you” and you would be “infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.”
Finally, our exhibit team utilized an audio component through an iPad that contains a dozen popular songs related to the war and three spoken word pieces comprising readings of a letter from the American Red Cross to Ernestine Kauffman informing her of Joseph’s death; a letter from Ernestine to Walter Temple about her son’s passing; and excerpts from the Kauffman memorial dedication speech.
Through our programming related to the First World War, we’ve striven to represent many facets of the conflict, from the patriotic fervor of entering the war to the joy and euphoria of its conclusion to the complicated aftermath. The war had a significant impact on the decade, the 1920s, that followed and, because this is one of our three key interpretive decades (along with the 1840s and 1870s), we will continue to tie the war to developments that followed as we move through centennial commemorations of the Twenties in our own 2020s.