Friday, March 29, 2002

The Cyber Scene in Washington, DC ~ by Evelyn Tauben

Bringing the Collection to the Museum and the Museum to the Web

In the summer of 1942, more than 500 magazines as diverse as The New Yorker, Vogue, Popular Mechanics, and Master Comics featured the American flag on their covers along with the words “United We Stand.” Following an initiative of the National Publishers Association (now the Magazine Publishers of America), the magazines cooperated in a campaign to support the war effort. Partnering as well with the Treasury Department to encourage the sale of war bonds, magazine covers put forth an image of national unity on the first Fourth of July after the horrific attacks on Pearl Harbor.

A special exhibition, July 1942: United We Stand has just opened at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) in Washington D.C. For the first time more than 100 of the magazines featuring the American flag on their covers are being exhibited together to mark the 60th anniversary of their publication in July of 1942, seven months after the United States entered World War II.

The exhibition at the NMAH brings the magazine collection of Peter Kreitler together with new scholarship on this little known World War II home front effort. Kreitler, an Episcopalian minister and environmentalist from Southern California, was born in July 1942. After receiving one of these magazine covers as a birthday gift his curiosity about its origin grew into a private collection of over 300 magazine covers.

With a selection of 100 covers and historic artifacts from the museum’s collection, July 1942: United We Stand is a treat for lovers of design and history alike. The covers, specially designed by artists, illustrators, and photographers for the campaign, reveal the preoccupations and past-times of Americans during the war. Featuring images ranging from families flying the flag to patriotic fashion photos to U.S. war planes taking to the skies, the covers all share the common motto “United We Stand” and a variation on the Stars and Stripes.

A comprehensive online exhibition is also being launched in conjunction with this project. The virtual version of July 1942: United We Stand can be reached at Created by Baltimore-based, Evins Design the web site is another in a long series of collaborations between NMAH and outside design firms that contribute their technological innovation and creative vision to the museum’s vast collections and scholarship.

For the Star Spangled Banner Web site, NMAH teamed up with Hello Design in California to bring the story of the flag and the progress of its conservation to the public through such online features as roll-over activities and fun knowledge-testing quizzes. One section of the Web site allows visitors to play the role of curator by examining unique primary documents to piece together clues to the story of the famous flag.

Currently, Pyramid Studios in Richmond, Virginia is developing interactive audio-visual components, such as touch-screen kiosks, for an upcoming exhibition on the history of the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The latest project, the online exhibition for July 1942: United We Stand, demonstrates the unlimited potential of the internet to literally extend the walls of the museum. The online interface cannot match the visceral experience of viewing original artifacts first-hand, which gives museums their raison-d’ĂȘtre. However, the online exhibition serves as an excellent companion piece to the museum exhibition; allowing curators to explore themes and present objects in ways physical space constraints would not allow.

The virtual visitor can learn more about the artists behind the cover designs in a section appropriately titled “Behind the Designs” where the works of 1940s illustrators are explored. “The Flag and World War II” section demonstrates the ubiquity of the flag symbol while displaying other historical objects from the museums’ collection.

Beyond simply expanding the content, the online exhibition extends the public’s access to information. There is of course the obvious global reach of the web. The collection of magazines once stored beneath Peter Kreitler’s bed in the Pacific Palisades is not only on view at the nation’s museum of American history but is now available to the world. As well, the July 1942 web site allows visitors to view over 300 magazine covers through a searchable database. One of the exhibition’s curators, Marilyn Zoidis, described the database as “an incredible resource that we will leave behind long after the exhibition ends.”

Julia Evins and Barney Kirby, the designers of the online exhibition, describe the aspect of participation as an essential component of the web version that sets it a part from the gallery space. Not only can web surfers uncover details about the magazines and connections between them through the searchable database, they are also encouraged to vote for their favorite covers in a section that describes the original contest for best cover design run by the United States Flag Association.

Kirby does not believe in the standard cynicism that online exhibitions further remove the public from actual museum objects and discourage them from visiting the museum. Instead he feels that the images on the web, clearly reproductions, spawn greater curiosity and the need for closer inspection. Such is the case with July 1942: United We Stand.

The online exhibition is a cleverly crafted design combining a modern medium with a 1940s period feel to showcase these magnificent magazine covers and tell their story. However, a visit to the National Museum of American History is certainly worthwhile to view the vibrant designs with their reds, whites, and blues still bold after sixty years. Ultimately the teaming up of NMAH and Evins design to create two exhibitions at once signals an important step forward for museums. As NMAH’s Acting-Director, Marc Pachter stated at the press preview, “we [the museum] are everywhere in many formats… and that represents a museum in the twenty-first century.”

Evelyn Tauben works at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and at the National Museum of American History where she was part of the exhibition team for July 1942: United We Stand.

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