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The Art of War

Library features propaganda posters in new exhibit

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These days, social media may be the preferred method of messaging for some leaders, but a new exhibit harkens back to a very different time. “The Art of Propaganda: Posters of World War I and II” will open Jan. 17 on the second and third floors of the Maxwell Library.

The exhibit of nearly 50 posters was put together by Orson Kingsley, head of Archives & Special Collections, who began thinking about such a display while working from 2007-2010 in the archives of Sheldon Museum in Middlebury, Vt. The museum had a large collection of posters from both world wars.

“I had taken photos of many of the posters while I was working in Middlebury, but I left before I ever had the chance to put together an exhibit,” Mr. Kingsley said. “It stayed in my mind and this past summer I began working with the archivist at the Sheldon to see if it could become reality.”

The artistically designed posters represented in this exhibit depict the messages the American government sent to everyone from housewives to soldiers emphasizing the need to make sacrifices for the country during wartime.

Wartime posters were attractive and easy to reproduce in multiple languages and various sizes. They could easily be pasted on buildings or hung in homes or windows. The mix of advertising and messaging about the war was deemed important enough to the United States government that its public information committee in 1917 created the Division of Pictorial Publicity, which asked some of the country’s best illustrators to volunteer their talents. The resulting posters served a variety of purposes, including driving enlistment, justifying the war, encouraging citizen involvement, and stirring fear and disdain for the enemy. (Source: Smithsonian magazine)

“The propaganda theme was of vital importance as it obviously is an issue in our country today,” Mr. Kingsley said. “Mindless propaganda tactics can be used for good and bad. This exhibit is focusing more on the good, such as the government asking citizens to grow their own gardens and can their own food so all supplies available could be shipped to the troops overseas, as well as to European allies.”

Forty-three of the posters are from the Sheldon Museum's collection, four – by Norman Rockwell – have been culled from the Maxwell Library’s own archives, and Mr. Kingsley has provided one from his personal collection. Eighteen of the posters are from World War I, the rest are related to the second world war. Library Director Michael Somers and Associate Director of Collections and Exhibitions Jay Block helped bring the exhibit to fruition.

Mr. Kingsley is clearly enthused about the subject, and felt that there was no time like the present for this exhibition.

“To sum it up, my past jobs and connections combined with the centennial of the U.S. involvement in World War I and the centennial of the last year of the war in 2018 were my inspirations for the exhibit. It's been on the back-burner for years and I realized if not now then probably never,” he said.

On Thursday, January 25, the library will host an opening reception for the exhibit from 4 to 6 p.m. “The Art of Propaganda: Posters of World War I and II" will be open to the public, free of charge, from Jan. 17 to April 6. (Story by John Winters, G’11, University News)

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