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Four Questions for Dr. Peter Jakab, National Air and Space Museum

"Each soldier had an individual story to tell."

By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission

The people at the Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC have been very busy telling the story of World War I. They have created no fewer than five new exhibitions that opened this month. One that we are very excited about is "ARTIST SOLDIERS" at the National Air & Space Museum. This exhibition shows artwork from the "Great Eight" combat artists who served with the American Expeditionary Force. It also showcases photos of remarkable underground artwork & carved graffiti that common soldiers from World War I left behind, while waiting out bombardments in caves and mines. The Smithsonian Air & Space curatorial team have just recently finished the new on-line version of the exhibition. We had the great honor to meet and talk to Dr. Peter Jakab, Ph.D. who is the Chief Curator of the National Air and Space Museum. He took particular interest in creating this exhibition, and took some time to tell us about it.

The new online version of your WWI exhibition, Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War, is now up. What will we find there?

Peter JakabDr. Peter Jakab, Chief Curator of the National Air and Space Museum.The exhibition features never-before-seen material. The first part of the exhibition displays 54 works of art from the AEF Art Program. Eight professional illustrators were commissioned as officers in the American Expeditionary Forces and went to France in 1918 with the American troops. Their mission was to capture the experiences of American soldiers in a realistic, in-the-moment way. They were the first true combat artists. They produced approximately 700 paintings, drawings, and sketches. They were on display as part of a Great War exhibition in the 1920s, but other than one or two shown with other material over the years, they have not been exhibited as a collection in living memory.

The second half of the exhibition displays 29 art photographs of stone carvings left by soldiers in underground shelters that were adjacent to the trenches. These shelters were occupied by solders on all sides and are largely unknown even to WWI historians because they remain on private lands in hard to access places. The carvings range from simple inscriptions to elaborate works of art to religious alters carved in the walls. The photographs of the carvings are on display for the first time. In addition to the artwork, the exhibition also displays examples of “trench art” made by soldiers and other artifacts associated with the WWI soldiers’ experience.

Is it designed to be a stand-alone, or as a companion exhibit? Will we see things, or aspects of things, that we will not see at the exhibition at the Air & Space Museum?

Air Space 13 600It is a stand-alone exhibition. Again, it features material never before seen in any exhibition.

You have such incredible holdings to draw from. How did you decide on what should be included in these exhibitions?

It was difficult to make final selections of the artwork, but an effort was made to show the range of soldiers’ experiences, not just on the battlefield. The 54 AEF works depict a wide range activities experienced by the AEF. The stone carvings also cover a range of expression—patriotic, religious, humor, loss, portraits, sentiments toward loved ones at home.

No parent should have a favorite child, of course, but you have items from this exhibit that you are particularly excited to include (i.e. Wheelchair, etc. ). Can you tell us about a couple of these? why do they resonate with you?

The main idea of the exhibition is to surface the individual in great historical events. WWI affected millions of people, but it is easy to think of one soldier being just like the next, to think of the armies of WWI as faceless masses. We forget that each soldier had his own unique personality and experience. Through the artwork and other artifacts, we remind ourselves that each soldier had an individual story to tell.

Among the most powerful objects in the exhibition is an original WWI wheelchair. It is a powerful symbol that every major historic event is made by the actions and experiences of individuals. With many Americans serving overseas, this is an important lesson for our own time. The artist solders of WWI have sent this message to us from the past.

NASM2017 00931 600Examples of artwork by individual American soldiers in World War One. NMAH AHB2014q001353 600