G. Kurt Piehler, PhD, Director, Institute on World War II and the Human Experience:
The Human Experience of WWII was comprised of separate installations brought together from generous lenders such as Dr. Patrick Rowe (The Design of War and the Bill Mauldin Collection) and the Oliver L. Austin, Jr., Slide Collection curated by Dr. Annika Culver, as well as selections from the Ringling Museum’s Coville Collection united with photographic collections from the Institute by Curator Chris Jones to create Witness to War. With such fine colleagues, the Institute personnel examined the archetypal methodology and organization of many traditional museums. We had a number of questions: For instance, how can we exhibit causes, effects, and concepts by way of objects? How do we evoke the human experience of World War II through artifacts? Will the public respond favorably to our choices and interpretation? How do museums deal with contested historical issues such as repatriation of war trophies, and personal items belonging to a former enemy, such as Japanese flags embossed with the names of friends and relatives? What is the contemporary relevance and future of World War II museums?
Underlying the exhibition with its accentuation on the physical vestiges of World War II are the connections between war and society and the integration of physical objects into displays as manifestations of cultural history. Previously, many museums simply acted as repositories for disparate military hardware such as guns, uniforms, and vehicles. This exhibition seeks to integrate such materials into a larger narrative that highlights the power of an object in the context of the human experience during World War II with the hope of achieving the optimal method of extracting such power in a museum gallery. The intended goal of twenty-first century museum approaches is to highlight the personal and human experiences of a wide range of military personnel and civilians who were thrust into a global conflict of unparalleled scale and scope. Underlying this exhibition are connections between war and society and material culture that are exemplified through the integration of physical objects as manifestations of cultural history. We of the Institute on World War II and the Museum of Fine Arts at Florida State University hope that this larger, global narrative will reveal the power of the object in the context of the human experience of war and that such individual stories will interest visitors of all ages. G.K.P.
The artifacts and historic photographs of the Institute on WWII have been photographed by Jon Nalon, Tallahassee, Florida.
The artifacts and historic photographs of Patrick M. Rowe have been photographed by Christopher White, Pensacola, Florida.
Entrance to Dachau, 1945. Paul K. Dougherty Collection of the Institute on WWII, Florida State University.
Technical Sergeant Paul K. Dougherty was a photographer for the US Army who captured the quotidian life of fellow soldiers as they went through basic training in Tallahassee, Florida. Dougherty and his future wife met at the Tallahassee USO and would often enjoy lunch together at the Sweet Shop. After his training at Dale Mabry Field, Dougherty became the official Army photographer of General George S. Patton’s campaign through Europe. Dougherty’s work leaves little to the imagination and illustrates the powerful human narrative that was World War II. This image is of the entrance to Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany where 27,839 men and women were killed before the Allies liberated the camp in 1945.
THE COLLECTIONS OF THE INSTITUTE ON
WORLD WAR II AND THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE
As the years following World War II came and went, a multitude of veterans were increasingly willing to divulge their stories. Retirement and the sense of their own mortality encouraged many to grapple with the remarkable events of their youth. In addition, grandchildren often expressed an interest in the artifacts of their grandfathers, such as the uniforms and letters found while clearing out attics and basements. They also found interested audiences for their stories and receptivity that was unthinkable during the tumultuous 1960s. The senior leaders of the Vietnam War were World War II veterans, and the term “Greatest Generation” was the last label such leaders could have expected to be bestowed amid widespread anti-war sentiments. In the 1980s, popular mini-series like Herman Wouk’s “Winds of War” (1983) captivated Americans and renewed interest in the conflict: so, too, did the 1984 D-Day Anniversary. By the 1990s, the passions surrounding the Vietnam War that had so divided the World War II generation from the Baby Boomers had cooled. The work that helped define this new appreciation of the World War II generation was Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation (1998).
The Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, founded in 1997 through Florida State University’s Department of History, emerged out of this wave of popular interest to preserve the human dimension of the Second World War. Despite voluminous writings on the campaigns of that war and on the major personalities of the time, the war’s profound impact on the individual American man and woman had largely been left uncharted by the end of the 20th century. The primary raison d’être of the Institute is to rectify that deficiency and provide a centralized collection for research on questions related to the human experience of World War II.