Picturing World War I: A Conversation With the Curator

Picturing World War I: A Conversation With the Curator

As you’ve probably heard if you are a regular reader of this blog, October is Archives Month, and we are excited to celebrate at the Ohio History Connection.

The theme for Archives Month this year is “A War to End all Wars.” Which war might that be? The answer is World War I.

American involvement in World War I was at its height from 1917-1919. With it being 2017 this year, many archivists, curators, and historians are very excited to begin exploring the 100 year anniversaries that will be soon be popping up.

To start thinking about World War I and its effects on Ohio, the Ohio History Connection is opening a new archival exhibit this October. This exhibit uses archival items, particularly photographs, to tell the story of World War I in Ohio.

Today on the blog we have a very special guest, curator of this new exhibit, Lisa. We’ve asked her some questions about World War I, archives, and this great exhibit.

1. Would you like to introduce yourself? What do you do at the Ohio History Connection?
I started working at the Ohio History Connection in 1997.  I have worked on the museum floor with the visitor experience staff, in the research library and participated in digital projects like the OhioPix image database.  My job since 2011 has primarily been curating historical film and photographs.

2. What was the inspiration for this new exhibit?
Changes in photographic technology allowed for a great deal of photographic documentation to take place during World War I.  Not only were professional photographers working in military camps and following the troops on to the front, individual soldiers were carrying cameras to document their experiences.  The 100th anniversary of World War I inspired this exhibit, but also the sheer amount of photographs from the World War I era that the Ohio History Connection holds in the archives.

 Soldiers at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio, stood in formation to make the shape of President Woodrow Wilson’s head in this photograph.

3. Don’t exhibits normally use objects? Why archival material? Are there any special concerns when you put archival material on display?
Exhibits composed mostly of photographs might be more common in art museums than in history museums, but photography exhibits can be a very powerful way to convey a lot of information to visitors.  The saying that “A picture is worth a thousand words” is cliché, but it is true.  Letters, diaries and other things that are written in the words of people who participated  in historical events are also very powerful because they allow people from the past to tell us their stories.

The chief concern with displaying archival materials is light damage.  We mitigate this by limiting the time that photographs and documents are displayed; exhibiting them in rooms with little or no natural lighting; keeping lights low and adjusting lights so that they are not shining directly on photographs or documents.

4. Why is it so important to preserve photographs?
Photographs are one of the most direct windows that we have to the past.  While photographs can and always have been altered, generally people think of photographs as telling the truth about how people and places looked and how events unfolded.

Long before Photoshop, people were altering photographs. Learn more about how this photograph (c. 1880) was made here.

5.Why are photographs considered archival? Are they made of paper?
While we primarily store photographic materials in the Archives/Library at the Ohio History Connection, photographs are found in the collections of archives, libraries and museums of all kinds.  From the 1860s to the early 2000s most photographs were printed from glass or film negatives onto paper.  In the 1840s and 1850s most photographs were developed on metal or glass plates.  In the early 2000s digital photographs quickly replace paper prints as our primary form of making new photographs.

6.What’s your favorite piece in this new exhibit?
I really like the large panoramic photographs of the Ohio National Guard units sent to Texas to guard the border between the U.S. and Mexico.  To make photographs that big photographers had very large box cameras that turned 180 degrees.  They also had very large film negatives that rolled around spindles inside the camera.  It could take a minute or two for the camera to turn and take the full photograph.  The amount of detail in these photographs is truly amazing, from the sweep of the mountains in the background to the soldiers sitting outside their tents, you really feel like you get a sense of the  Texas landscape and what living conditions in the camp were like for the soldiers.

If you’re in Columbus, stop by the Ohio History Connection to check out this great new exhibit, “Picturing World War I.” Thank you very much to Lisa for stopping by the History Blog to tell us all about it!

Stay tuned, blog readers- we’ve got a week and a half left of archives month, and more posts coming your way!

Posted October 18, 2017

Subscribe to Our Blogs