WWI and the Fight for the American Mind



of an Exhibit

by Charissa Ruth

Published on August 18, 2014

  • Description:

    I don’t think the New York Public Library could have had better timing.

    Right now the media is saturated with stories of violence from the conflict in Ukraine and between Israel and Gaza, to the clashes between police and protesters over police brutality. The widespread usage of media through the ever-increasing permeation of technology in our lives presents an extreme range of opinions and accounts of these events to media consumers. The ways in which we understand and act upon conflict because of such media is in the simplest of terms, complex.

    The exhibit WWI and the Fight for the American Mind explores the different ways in which media was used just after the turn of the century to influence the American population as to whether the United States should enter World War I and once they were involved in the conflict, to “enforce patriotism and stifle dissent.”

    Housed in the smaller of the exhibit spaces at the New York Public Library, it packs a wallop of an experience. Arranged in a circular configuration, following a chronological layout of the collection objects, it is arranged in a way open to free movement. The different categories of media are grouped together under different stances taken in regard to the war and the United States’ involvement. Visitors can explore the space several ways: chronologically, by theme, or by type of media.

    One of the more widely used media forms during this time were books which spanned the range from non-fiction to children’s literature. People wrote about moral obligation to go to or abstain from war, alternative futures where the United States was under German rule, and their experiences on the front line fighting, nursing, and driving supplies around.

    Other sources displayed are silent movies, posters, photographs, songs, radio broadcasts, newspapers, and metal buttons. Visitors can watch the movies and actually listen to some of the more popular songs recorded during that time. The back wall, salon style, is covered in posters which were sponsored by the government to encourage patriotism and citizen participation.

    It was especially daring for such a government-funded institution to comment on the censorship exercised by the government during that time to shut down any dissenting voices. Many publishing organizations who opposed the United States involvement in the war or who supported Germany faced a forced slow shut down of their operations as the United States entered World War I and sent thousands of troops and supplies over to Europe.

    One of other the great features of this exhibit is providing an explanation and reason for the existence of the primary displayed objects. For example, because of the censorship exercised by the government then, and the shut down of many organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union was born to protect citizens’ rights.

    At this time as journalists for major news channels as well as independent media sources are venturing into areas of conflict, varying opinions appear on the news, on blogs, in articles on the internet and in newspapers. What exactly are we supposed to believe? This exhibit illustrates just how powerful the media is as a weapon, then and now.

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