Category: Museums

The Great Fair turns 75

I recently began researching a small piece for the World War I Centennial Commission social media page when I came across these remarkable photographs taken during the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. If you do the math you will note that we are currently in the middle of the fair’s 75th anniversary. It was a fascinating historical moment because the Depression was finally starting to lift, while at the same time the clouds of war were gathering in Europe. The fair began on April 30 and the German invasion of Poland was on September 1. Needless to say, these and other events wreaked havoc on the fair and its hope for a batter world of tomorrow. The Second World War also had immediate concerns for event planners from the dozens of participating nations. For instance, which constituency  would represent this or that recently conquered nation in the fair’s pavilions? Would it be the resistance leaders or the representatives of the new regime? Or neither? Perhaps a country’s organizers would be better off shutting down their nation’s pavilion and washing one’s hands of the entire matter. How does one celebrate knowing the news of such death and destruction back home? These are the issues they dealt with.

The photos here are of American Civil War veterans at the fair. I wish I could date the images more precisely but as of yet cannot. I hope to do more with this in the future. In some cursory digging I discovered that Civil War veterans went to the 1939-1940 World’s Fair on several occasions. Helen D. Longstreet, Pete Longstreet’s widow, was at the fair at least twice. In June 1939 she was there to dedicate an exhibit of Confederate artifacts at the Florida Pavilion. A month later–on 2 July 1939, the 76th anniversary of the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg–she appeared again. Her appearance came one year after Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke at the unveiling of the Peace Light Memorial.

The very week the Germans and Soviets were dividing Poland Civil War vets inspected the tanks of the Seventh Cavalry Brigade at the fairgrounds in Queens. Again, it is not clear when these photographs were taken. The one of the soldiers standing in front of the Lincoln statue says it was taken on Lincoln’s Birthday. The heavy coats would seem to corroborate that. I would guess the photograph was taken in 1940 but it could have been 1939 when the final touches were being made in preparation for the opening that spring. Note the photo of Robert E. Lee. This was quite consciously a reconciliationist effort on the part of the organizers.

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A young girl admires the medals of a Civil War veteran. One can imagine that Americans found comfort in the presence of these aging soldiers as war was getting underway yet again. The Second World War’s role in the reconciliation process is often overlooked.

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Here are our friends in blue and grey yet again. I am not sure of the building in front of which they are standing.

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This past August I took this photo of the rear of the New York City Building. This is today the Queens Museum of Art.

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Here is a mosaic commemorating the fair. This area today is Flushing Meadows–Corona Park. I took these two photos on my way to a Mets game.

(images of Civil War veterans, NYPL)

Textiles and the Civil War

Yesterday a friend and I visited the New-York Historical Society to see the exhibit about textiles and the Civil War. Textiles, in this case cotton, obviously were a major cause of the secession crisis and the war. The exhibit though went beyond cotton’s role in the conflict. Included were quilts, flags, housewives (hand stitched sewing kits), clothes, and other items. Among the most touching artifacts were swatches from the Jordan Marsh catalog in various textures and shades of black from which to make mourning clothes. Jordan Marsh is yet one more thing from my past that no longer exists but that is another story.

I do not know if this is true or not, but the exhibit states that there were no hidden messages within quilts for fugitives on the Underground Railroad. It’s funny how these types of stories get propagated and then never entirely go away. More than once I myself have readjusted what I say in tours and public talks after discovering a long-held assumption is false. One that comes to mind off the top of my head was that there was once a tax on having closets in one’s home.

It is an extraordinarily thoughtful show and runs through August 24.

One thing that caught my eye was this little Zouave uniform made for a little boy. The reason it stuck out, besides the fact that it is beautiful is because little Theodore Roosevelt had one that was similar. (See it here.)

similar Zouave uniform on display at the New-York Historical Society

a girl’s dress and little boy’s Zouave uniform on display at the New-York Historical Society

Speaking of the New-York Historical Society keep in mind that the museum has an exhibit about New York City and the Civil War running through September 28 in Building 18 on Governors Island. I still have yet to check this out. There is still two months to go in the Governors Island season.

 

 

WW1 Centennial Trade Show report

Yesterday I attended the WW1 Centennial Commission Trade Show. I met a lot of people who are doing some interesting things for the commemoration of the Great War. Here are a few pics from the show.

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The trade show brought together museum officials, authors, and others to discuss their projects for the Centennial. Jones Day, theWashington white shoe law firm, hosted the event.

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The acting chairman of the Commission spoke first and discussed the group’s strategic plan. They have obviously put a great deal of thought and energy into the enterprise. He and the other commissioners are all volunteers.

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Before the trade show presentations there was a fifteen minute musical interlude by Benjamin Sears and Bradford Conner. They set a nice tone for the afternoon.

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Sergeant York’s son (black shirt and glasses on right) was there with his own son and granddaughter (seated to his left).

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Here are a few of the exhibits. As with the Civil War Sesquicentennial, the Great War Centennial will incorporate the  changes that have taken place in historiographically in recent decades.

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This is a sampling of some of the literature I gathered. I do not want to give away too much right now but I spoke to various folks about working on some projects over the next 4-5 years. I think the next few years will be fun and productive in a number of ways.

Rainy Sunday Morning Coffee

It was a big week for John Coltrane. His son Ravi donated one of his father’s saxophones to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History on Wednesday. At the same ceremony photographer Chuck Stewart donated twenty-five previously unseen Coltrane photographs to the Institution. The ceremony kicked off Jazz Appreciation Month. Stewart’s photographs are from the A Love Supreme sessions. Supreme was recorded fifty years ago this December.  The saxophone and original score will soon be on display in the “American Stories” exhibition.

A preservation group has been working for a few years now to save the musician’s Huntington, Long Island home. When we think of jazz musicians living in New York City we think Harlem, but really many of them lived in Queens or farther out on the island. Coltrane died in 1967 and is buried in Pinelawn Memorial Park. Pinelawn is one of several cemeteries along a stretch of Long Island. When a friend of mine visits this summer we may go out there to see her grandparents interred there. If/when we do, I am going to try to visit the Coltrane site as well.

The origins of the monuments men

I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Watson Library doing some research today when I passed this display case.

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I did a double-take when I noticed this image of none other than Dwight Eisenhower himself. This is he and Mamie walking down the Met Museum steps familiar to New Yorkers for generations.

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The date was 2 April 1946. That day the Met made Eisenhower an Honorary Fellow for Life for his role in saving European artworks during the Second World War. This is the first page of the address he gave that April day:

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Here is the order he gave in May 1944, just a few weeks before D-Day. It is revealing that he would issue such an order even before the Normandy Invasion. He always said there was no contingency for failure. Thus, there were preparations for saving artworks even before a beachhead had been secured. Think about it.

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Here are Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley. The photo was taken by a U.S. Army lieutenant in a German salt mine on 12 April 1945, a month before the war ended and a year before Ike spoke at the Met.

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In a nice touch, the museum has a gallery itinerary in which one cane find artworks now in the Met that were saved by the Monuments Men. I had seen a few of these a number of times over the years without knowing their provenance.

Here is one of those works.

Guardroom with the Deliverance of Saint Peter David Teniers the Younger, ca. 1645–47

Guardroom with the Deliverance of Saint Peter
David Teniers the Younger, ca. 1645–47

The painting was donated to the Met in 1964, half a century ago and only nineteen years after the war’s end.

(images/Ike et al, National Archives; Guardroom, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The frozen tundra of the National Mall

I was on the Mall today and am here to say it was COLD, and with a bone chilling wind to add insult to injury. I must say it kept the tourists away, even on MLK Jr. weekend. Hours later my ears are still ringing.

Last March I took a pic of what was then the hole that will eventually become the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Well, ten months later we still have a hole but it is starting to fill up.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, January 2014

National Museum of African American History and Culture construction site, January 2014

I have no doubt that they will do a great job. A few months ago the Smithsonian folks were at the Brooklyn Museum appraising people’s artifacts. Earlier this month they were doing the same thing in Fort Lauderdale while I was down there. It is going to be a varied and disparate collection. The only thing that concerns me is that the Mall, especially this part of the Mall, is on low ground and is susceptible to flooding.

The U.S. Army Museum

An Army chaplain performs the last rites, Bliliou (Peleliu) Island,, 1944

An Army chaplain performs the last rites, Bliliou (Peleliu) Island, 1944

Last summer in a post I mentioned a film called They Drew Fire. That PBS documentary was about the artists who painted and sketched the Second World War  as they witnessed it in both Europe and the Pacific. When we think “art” and “war” we think of Winslow Homer, Conrad Wise Chapman, and various others who sketched for Harper’s, Leslie’s Illustrated, or what have you. I suppose that the newsreels and photojournalism one saw in Life magazine, not the paintings and sketches that came from an artist’s hand, are the dominant iconography of the WW2. That the branches of the American Armed Services commissioned dozens of individuals to go forth and record what they saw is a story that has yet to be told fully. What is most incredible is the free rein they had.

Many of the thousands of works these artists produced from 1941-1945 are sitting in a modern storage facility in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, just outside Washington. The photos remind me of the Luce Center storage one sees at the Met Museum, New-York Historical Society,  the Brooklyn Museum of Art among other places. The goal is to move them into the National Museum of the United States Army that is currently being built within four years. I am interested to see how this project plays out.

(painting by WW2 artist Tom Lea, courtesy NPS)