Photo by James V. Carroll

Promoting national unity 'on the go'

Approximately 35 pieces from The American Legion's war-poster collection have been loaned to the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis for a temporary exhibit.

"Art for the Nation" focuses on the use of posters to mobilize Americans to support the war effort during the two world wars. According to Katherine Gould, associate curator of cultural history and the exhibit's creator, 96 posters are displayed, divided almost evenly between the Legion's collection, the collection of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library and the museum's own collection.

Gould contacted the Legion last June, after finding the online catalog of the poster collection and being impressed by its breadth. Largely shepherded into existence by former American Legion Library head Verna B. Grimm, the 3,000-plus collection was gathered from a number of different sources, including private parties and the American Library Service, and is mainly housed at National Headquarters."Because all of the posters cannot be displayed at National Headquarters, we were pleased with the opportunity to have some of them included as part of the exhibit," Legion Library & Museum Director Howard Trace said. "We hope these posters serve as a reminder that everyone - not just our servicemembers - is part of the war effort."

Gould seeks primarily to address students, especially school groups and Scouts, with the exhibit. The posters are grouped to illustrate five major themes: general appeals, recruitment, mobilization, food conservation, and targeted outreach to women and minorities (such as blacks and recent immigrants). The presentation is very simple, to let the art of the posters speak the loudest. Given the "on-the-go" nature of the medium, Gould says, these posters "had to convey a very complicated message in a very simple way." That way was largely the use of arresting imagery, "playing on different emotions" both positive (such as patriotism) and negative (such as anger).

The message, however - to support the war effort, at whatever cost - was constant. She describes the whole as not so much an art exhibit as "documented artifacts that just happen to be really cool" - the crossroads of politics and art, and of patriotism and propaganda. Popular wartime songs and video clips from the Veterans History Project provide ambience.

Gould would like for viewers to "look beyond images, to get to the history and information." In a different time for the nation, without the Internet for anyone to look anything up at any time, war posters had to educate as well as inspire. Today, Gould is not sure if a similar campaign focusing on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would work as well. "There is more information today," she says, "and more cynicism."

"Art for the Nation" runs through July 24. Click here for more information on the exhibit and the Indiana State Museum. Click here to view a photo album of some of the featured posters.