History on Display: Faces of the 1st

Lobby BannerLast week My Own True Love and I made the long drive to outer suburbia to see a special exhibit at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park: Faces of the 1st. It was well worth the trip.

Several years ago we happily spent a rainy Memorial Day at the First Division Museum and were fascinated.* The museum does an excellent job of placing the Army's First Division** in historical context--from the division's creation in World War One through the current conflicts.


Faces of the First takes the museum's basic mission and gives it a twist by tightening the focus from the division as a whole to the individual soldier. The exhibits tagline says it all: 17 Soldiers, 7 Conflicts, 1 Division. According to exhibit designer Jaron Kenner, "The point of the exhibit is to put a face to war. Visitors look at personal stories and can identify with them." Using photographs and artifacts from the collections of the soldiers they profile, the museum tells the stories of a diverse group of soldiers. Chaplain, doghandler, nurse, and artilleryman.  Boys barely out of high school and men who thought they were too old to be drafted. A professional boxer and a professional drummer as well as career soldiers.***

Some of the stories that gripped my imagination include:

• Marlin Burns' Army and Navy Service Record from WWI which was essentially a baby book detailing a soldier's career. Burns' record included charming sketches that brought his experience to life.
• WWII infantryman and professional drummer Fred Randall who served in the occupation of Germany. His commanding officer asked him to create a nightclub for soldiers stationed in Wurtzberg
• Methodist minister Wes Geary, who enlisted as a chaplain in the Vietnam War at the request of his bishop because the Army Chaplin Corps needed college educated black men. Since he wasn't allowed to carry a weapon, he made himself a slingshot.

Faces of the First successfully put a face on war: seventeen of them in fact. The exhibit runs through September 2. If you're in the area, make the time for a visit. If you're not in the area, check out the exhibit website  . 

* The re-creation of World War I trenches was particularly memorable. We've seen many versions of this since then, but few are as well done.

** Aka The Big Red One

*** High-ranking officers are the only group not represented: a conscious choice on the part of the museum curators. As Kenner pointed out, war is fought by the everyday soldier.

How to Create the Perfect Wife.

The myth of one man's effort to create a perfect woman is a recurring theme in Western literature, from Ovid's telling of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea in classical Rome to Lerner and Lowe's My Fair Lady in twentieth-century America.* In each version of the story, the creator falls in love with his creation, whether he begins with a hunk of marble or a Covent Garden flower girl.

In How To Create The Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train The Ideal Mate Wendy Moore tells the astonishing-- and appalling--real life story of one man's attempt to play Pygmalion. The real life version was a little more complicated than the myth.

Thomas Day was wealthy, intelligent, and a gentleman in the technical sense, if not in terms of manners or social graces. He was a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an ardent crusader against slavery, an occasionally ambivalent supporter of the American Revolution, and the author of an enormously popular children's book. He was also slovenly in his dress, badly groomed, and impatient of fashionable fripperies.

By the time he was twenty-one he had been engaged and jilted twice. Secure in his sense of personal worth, he came to the conclusion that the problem was the way Georgian society educated upper class women. (After all, the problem couldn't possibly be him.) Inspired by Rousseau's Emile, he decided to train a young girl to be the perfect wife. Day selected two young girls as potential wives, and removed them from the Foundling Hospital under false pretenses, abetted by two of his best friends. I'm not saying another word about what happens after that, because I don't want to spoil that story.

Moore writes in a lively style that kept me eager to know what happened next. At the same time, she sets Day's experiments solidly in the world of eighteenth century intellectuals: members of Erasmus Darwin's Lunar Society,** Benjamin Franklin, novelist Maria Edgeworth, and a very irritated Rousseau all play a role. In fact, the most astonishing thing about Day's experiments is that number of people who knew about them and did not intervene.

If you have a taste for Jane Austen (or Georgette Heyer), an interest in Enlightenment thought, or a fascination with eccentrics, give yourself a treat and read How to Create a Perfect Wife.

*Does anyone know of a similar tale of a woman's attempt to create a perfect man? My guess is that none exist because such tales assume a degree of power over another human being that was historically a male prerogative.

**Sometimes known as the "lunaticks".

History on Display: Scenes from the Stone Age

I don't get to Chicago's Field Museum as often as I would like. I notice a special exhibition that looks interesting: Cleopatra, the royal courts of India, pirates. I look at how long it's running and think, "Oh, I have plenty of time." Then I put my head down and forget about it until it's too late. When My Own True Love brought Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux to my attention, I made sure we put it on the calendar.

I'm glad we went. The exhibit was fascinating in a deconstructionist, post-modern kind of way. But, quite frankly, it was kind of weird.

The first room had scale models of the cave system, with lines drawings of the paintings below each section. At first I couldn't figure out what the models were. They reminded me of bones in the desert. Or teeth.

The second room discussed the construction of Lascaux II, a replica of the caves created by the French government. The technology involved was amazing. So was the scope of the project. The original caves were closed to tourists in 1963.* Lascaux II was designed to allow people to have a simulated experience of visiting the caves. It's been an enormous success. Roughly five million people have visited the replica since it opened in 1983. Created over a period of eleven years by twenty artists using materials and techniques believed to be similar to those used by the original artists, Lascaux II is the Disneyland version of the caves, including mock-ups of prehistoric scenes and live examples of some of the animals depicted in the paintings.

Having seen the second room, the first room made more sense.

After that, the exhibit was more understandable. A review of different generations of archaeological work in the caves. A life-size mock-up of one section of the cave, created using the technology used for Lascaux II. A series of videos and hands-on displays discussing the paintings as both art and social constructs.**

Here were the things that struck me the most:

• The paintings are much larger than I pictured. It is absolutely clear that they weren't the work of a single inspired artist working with a torch. These paintings required organization and resources. ***
• That said, we know little about the society that created them or what the paintings meant to them. We can (and have) catalogue the images, including the abstract signs that are interspersed with the more-well known animal images. We can determine what materials they used for paint. But we don't know why or how or even when. ****
• "From the entrance to the innermost depths of the cave we see before our very eyes the great book of first mythologies, their very foundations themselves, with the creation of life as its central theme and through this the genesis of the world." Prehistorian Norbert Aujoulat (1946-2011)

The exhibit will remain at the Field Museum through September 8. Its next stop will be Montreal. Despite the weirdness factor, Scenes from the Stone Age is worth seeing if it comes to a theater near you.


* The effect of thousands of tourists on the atmosphere of the caves caused damage to the paintings. One of the most dramatic interactive stations in the exhibit illustrates the immediate change in temperature and humidity caused by one person standing still.

** The oddest, and yet most intriguing, of these was a series of interviews with French scholars about the caves. The interviews were taped, not filmed. A video of each scholar was exhibited as the appropriate interview was being played. Not videos of them being interviewed; videos of them standing uncomfortably while English subtitles rolled under their pictures. The interviews themselves were very interesting, but it was distracting watching the interviewees squirm in front of the camera. Why? Why?

*** Forget the torches that appear in every recreation of a Cro Magnon settlement that you've ever seen. Apparently they had cool little stone grease lamps. This fact alone made the visit worthwhile as I far as I was concerned.

**** Archeologists estimate the paintings were done 20,000 years ago, give or take a couple of thousand years. But that is based on the age of artifacts found in the caves, not the paintings themselves. The paintings were done with mineral pigments with no organic matter so they can't be tested with C14 methods (aka radiocarbon dating). Archeology is endlessly fascinating.

Image of the stone lamp courtesy of Shemur, via Wikimedia Commons.