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Home > Curator's Corner > March 2011 > Making Curatorial Choices
Making Curatorial Choices
Intrepid Teens Blog
Posted: 3/31/2011 11:12:02 AM

Curating an exhibition requires making choices.  Once the curator has refined the exhibition themes and messages, she must determine which objects best illustrate these ideas.

Our new special exhibition, “Inspiration and Industry: American Women on the Home Front,” draws from the Museum’s collection of original wartime posters.  As the curator of “Inspiration and Industry,” I spent hours examining our collection to determine which images best illuminate the roles of American women during World War I and World War II.  We have about 35 posters relating to women in wartime, yet not every example was suitable for the exhibition.  Some of the posters had weaker ties to the exhibition themes, others were redundant, and still others just wouldn’t fit in our galleries.

This installment of the Curator’s Corner examines three posters that didn’t make the cut and explains our decision-making process. 

Upon entering World War I, U.S. government began encouraging Americans to cut back on the consumption of certain foods.  Ultimately, the government began rationing sugar, an imported commodity.  In this poster, a woman sipping a sugary beverage diverts ships from their transatlantic journey to the battlefield.  By using a woman in this illustration, the artist reminds Americans that every citizen has a responsibility to support the war effort.  Even a seemingly innocent activity – enjoying a sweet drink – could have devastating consequences. 

Purely based on the illustration, this is one of my favorite World War I posters in our collection.  The complex image reminds me of a political cartoon.  Yet I wanted to highlight women playing an active role in the war effort, such as taking a factory job or serving with the military.  Furthermore, the government’s efforts to conserve resources became a far bigger issue in World War II.

The Office of War Information identified six themes to guide its propaganda efforts.  One of those themes was “the need to sacrifice.”  A number of posters in “Inspiration and Industry” implore Americans at home to make certain sacrifices, such as conserving scarce resources.  This example reminds Americans that men and women on the European front have endured suffering and loss far beyond what most Americans could comprehend.  Here, the artist uses an image of a weeping older woman to create an emotional connection with viewers.  The poster suggests that purchasing war bonds will help bring the war to its conclusion, minimizing the suffering of innocent civilians.

This poster diverges from the exhibition’s main theme: the experiences of American women at home.   Comparing the sacrifices of women in the combatant nations would be a worthwhile project… but that’s an entirely separate exhibition. 

The posters in “Inspiration and Industry” illustrate the U.S. government’s campaign to rally women to the war effort.  Yet the United States was not unique in its efforts to mobilize women.  This poster warned Americans that the enemy, too, had enlisted its women as combatants on the home front.  The poster makes a direct connection between the labor of Japanese women and the deaths of American servicemen on the battlefield.  With Japanese women slaving “14, 16, 18 hours a day,” how could any American refuse to work her hardest in support of the war effort?

Similar to the preceding example, this poster doesn’t illustrate the mobilization of American women. The poster makes a strong statement – and raises questions about the ways in which the government depicted its enemies – but it doesn’t quite fit in “Inspiration and Industry.”

Now that you’ve had a glimpse at our curatorial decision-making process, stop by the Museum to view the 21 powerful posters that are on display in “Inspiration and Industry.”  The exhibition will be on view until September 18, 2011.  

Jessica Williams
Curator of History