CMC exhibit captures human side of WWI
Sometimes history is so large in its scope that it hardly seems real. Other times, all you have to do is look in your own backyard for an up-close view of the events of the past.
Such was the case with a number of Claremont McKenna College students who—with the help of history professor Wendy Lower—have curated an exhibit on view through Sunday, October 12 at the Honnold/Mudd Library’s Founders Room.
“Over There, Over Here” features an array of memorabilia including photographs, books, posters, sheet music, diaries, documentary footage and even uniforms, most hailing from the Honnold’s centuries-deep Special Collections.
A few of the items come from the collections of Ms. Lower and other CMC professors. Most, however, were unearthed in the archives by students in a class called The Great War.
When Ms. Lower decided to organize the exhibit, her aims were modest. She figured the bulk of the show would center around her own store of World War I photographs and postcards, many of which were collected by her German-born husband’s family.
She knows all about archives, being a historian who has published several books, the most recent being Hitler’s Furies: German Woman in the Nazi Killing Fields, a chilling look at female complicity and participation in the Holocaust. She’s a relatively new CMC hire, though, and didn’t anticipate the Special Collections’ sheer number of items hailing from 1914 to 1918.
Anyone in the community, by the way, can sift through the Special Collections, provided they follow some guidelines.
There is a photo of the students in the archives, surrounded by World War I memorabilia. It is the kind of aha moment for which the historian lives.
“It’s thrilling to sift through historical artifacts in an attempt to explain the world as it is today,” she said.
Once the artifacts were found, it was up to the students to determine which should be highlighted. They were also charged with creating cards describing the displays and providing broader information on a global war that claimed 16 million lives.
CMC senior Brian Key, who is pursuing a dual major in government and history, served as Ms. Lower’s right-hand man, undertaking a paid internship to help with the job.
“I really wanted to see this project come to fruition,” Mr. Key said. “What I gained was learning of the contributions of Claremont to the war. There were dozens of Pomona College students who fought in the war.”
Some 293 young men from Pomona College served in the armed forces during World War I, many on the frontlines of bloody trench warfare. Five young men, whose lives were claimed on the battlefield or by the Spanish flu, didn’t come home.
Not all is grim in the exhibit. You can see the original sheet music for melodic rallying cries like George M. Cohan’s “Over There,” a tune popular with soldiers and civilians alike. Song was so effective in raising support for the war effort that the government chose not to cut the rations for printing, Ms. Lower said.
“This was the beginning of the hits,” she explained. “People had pianos in their households and would gather round in singing halls. It was a unifying experience.”
News of the eventual cease-fire was cause for celebration, a moment detailed in Pomona College’s Student Life.
Visitors to the “Over There” exhibit can see the front page of the student newspaper, printed on November 12, 1918, a day after peace prevailed.
“Monday was a great day at Pomona,” an article noted. “The news of the signing of the armistice in Paris reached Claremont about three in the morning. About 4 o’clock, a group of girls heard of the great happening and started out to celebrate.”
There was a bit of consternation among the city’s older population, the story noted, after “the crowd marched on the streets, yelling and singing.”
“Over There” also tells the lesser-known story of the first case of wide-scale, internationally-coordinated aid campaign. When Germany invaded Belgium on its way to France, news spread of the atrocities perpetrated on Belgian citizens, particularly women and children.
With the help of philanthropists like Claremont Colleges benefactors William L. Honnold and Seeley W. Mudd and under the leadership of Herbert Hoover, $2.8 billion was raised in the United States to ship lifesaving supplies to the embattled population.
Two of the items on view are empty flour sacks Belgian women embellished with beautiful needlework, Swiss lace and crayon-bright embroidery, as thanks.
Creating the exhibit has been a time-intensive but rewarding experience, according to Ms. Lower.
“I hope that in the end, students really enjoyed a different kind of classroom experience.”