A new exhibition marking the centenary of the United States’ role in the Great War is opening this week at the American Museum in Bath. ‘Side by Side: America and World War I’ seeks to tell the stories of ordinary Americans as the country joined the conflict in Europe. Patrick Gregory reports from Bath.
Perched on gentle hills looking out over the Somerset and Wiltshire countryside, the American Museum at Claverton Manor outside Bath is, curiously, the only dedicated American museum to be found in Britain; and it enjoys its distinction of being the site, in 1897, of Winston Churchill’s first official political speech. The young cavalry officer, as he then was, was home on leave from India and running for elected office when he spoke at the old manor house.
But in 1961 Claverton was to become home to a new form of enterprise when an Anglo-American quartet of collectors and curators set out to celebrate the decorative arts and folk culture of America.
Over the years the museum has continued its mission to place people and their stories at the centre of their themed displays and permanent collection, and it is something again in evidence as it prepares to open Side by Side: America and World War I, a snapshot of the country and its people at the beginning of what was to become the American Century.
Each visitor to this year’s centennial exhibition will be given a personnel file detailing the experience of a real person at the time. Head of Visitor Experience, Jon Ducker says that he wants those attending to try to feel the personal impact of the war and hear the experiences of those who have often been forgotten in narratives of the war including women, African-Americans and native Americans.
Among those whose stories and artefacts are included are: American ambulance volunteer-turned playwright Preston Gibson; recipient of the Purple Heart Capt. Alexander Pratt (the father of one of the museum’s founders); social reformer and activist Jane Addams; artist and Harlem Hellfighters’ serviceman Horace Pippin; and US Air Service pilot Arthur Clifford Kimber.
Some rare artefacts are on display including a watch recovered from the wreck of the liner RMS Lusitania, torpedoed in 1915 with the loss of nearly 1,200 passengers including 128 American citizens; and there will be interactive spaces, including a field hospital and a life size model of the most common light tank used by the American Expeditionary Force in France during 1918, the French FT-17.
Newspaper articles are included, as are artistic responses such as popular songs and prints by Montgomery Flagg and Kerr Eby and the work of Ernest Hemingway. But the focus on personal experiences of war is underlined by soldiers’ letters and a family archive which includes a pair of French baby-booties (below) sent home by a US soldier to his pregnant wife.
The museum’s Chief Curator Kate Hebert says: “Our exhibition will explore the subtleties of how America joining the conflict helped to end the stalemate and bring about the end of the war, challenging the preconceptions of both British and American audiences.
“While the military impact of America’s involvement in World War I may still be a matter for debate among historians, what is certain is that the war had an irreversible impact on America: civil rights, universal suffrage, and world politics.”