Friday, October 29, 2010

Guest Post: Anita Burton reviews Soul Soldiers at the Western Reserve Historical Society

This week I am pleased to share the first of four guest blog posts written by the students in my Exhibition Development and Design class at Walsh University. This semester my students are learning about the elements and principles museums employ in creating successful exhibits and valuable visitor experiences. As we draw nearer to the end of this fall term, each of my students will present her own perspective on an exhibit, book, or experience that resonates with her.

Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era

Guest Post by: Anita Burton
Last weekend I was able to go to the Western Reserve Historical Society to see an exhibit they are currently featuring called Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era. This traveling exhibit was developed by Pittsburgh’s John Heinz History Center, and its Cleveland appearance is sponsored by the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Soul Soldiers is about African American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, while their friends and family members were fighting their own battle during the Civil Rights movement. The African American soldiers were called "soul soldiers" because they brought their souls to war with them and brought “soul” to the war, a phrase that can have many different meanings. I was drawn to the exhibit initially because it has to do with the Vietnam War, which as morbid as it may seem is one of my favorite eras in history. 

I had my own expectations upon entering the exhibit as most visitors do, something both Nina Simon and John Falk discuss in their recent books. I knew I was going to see artifacts and pictures pertaining to the war in Vietnam and the African American soldiers who were fighting in it. Of course, I did see both photographs and artifacts in the exhibit, but I got a lot more along with it. From the music of the time, to the issues African Americans faced while fighting for their own rights here in the United States, the exhibit covered multiple aspects of the Vietnam War from an African American perspective. The exhibit also included some social objects, which were very meaningful objects, and audio/visual tools that helped to drive the meaning home to the visitor.

As all visitors do, when I arrived I also had expectations of my enjoyment of the exhibit. I knew I would like it, just because of the subject of the exhibit. Object wise, I figured on seeing the typical photographs and artifacts, possibly uniforms, or even diaries written while fighting. As far as content or the information included, I am not sure what I expected, but I got a lot more then one might have initially thought. The exhibit talked about everything pertaining to the Vietnam War and the African American perspective. The very beginning starts off with information about Vietnam and the history of the war itself. It gave just the basics for those who do not know much about the war or the country. It then moved into a quick background on the Civil Rights movement, again to give those without much knowledge on these events a basis for viewing some of the other parts of the exhibit. 

Image courtesy of the Western Reserve
Historical Society
As you move on through the exhibit you see how some African Americans were drafted-- it even showed some of the draft posters that targeted African Americans specifically. The exhibit then went on to cover African Americans fighting in Vietnam, and how they dealt with the aftermath of the war. It talked about the ways the black soldiers communicated. They had this form of communicating with their hands that was described by some as their own form of sign language. The soldiers could meet up with friends they had not seen in a while and tell them everything their unit had been through without saying a word to each other. Finally, at the very end, the exhibit even included some artwork done by some of the veteran Soul Soldiers. I felt the exhibit did a good job of detailing facts about the war and the struggles the African American soldiers went through. Too many times we only see the white aspect of the war.

I felt that there were a couple good social objects featured in the exhibit. These were the ones that particularly caught my attention and caused me to think. One was a carving done by a Vietnamese woman and presented to one of the soldiers. It was a figure of two fists. While this may not seem like much, once you put it into context it makes a great deal of sense. Yes, it was a statue depicting two fists, but this was the symbol for black pride. It was used during the civil rights movement for African Americans to show their strength and pride. This carving was given to a soldier, who was a commanding officer of some units, and it became a kind of good luck charm. The label next to this statue said that it was placed somewhere where all had access to it, and before leaving to go on any mission every man in the unit touched it. It was a symbol of luck and even prayer for these soldiers. 

One of the other pieces I personally found to be very expressive was a piece of art created by one of the African American veterans. This particular piece was called “Crossfire” by William M. Myles. The painting showed an African American man in the midst of war with bullets going in every direction, and he himself getting hit many times. Bullets hit him and caused him to bleed red, white and blue blood. This image struck me as very moving, and again could start many conversations as to the significance behind the different parts of the artwork. For being a smaller exhibit, they had a good deal of what can be considered social objects-- objects that can start discussion on touchy subjects, such as both the civil rights movement and Vietnam War.

Also included in the exhibit, which I thought was a good touch, were the audio/visual parts of the exhibit. Today it seems like everyone wants to listen and watch, as if nobody wants to read information; they want it read to them. At the very beginning of the exhibit is a video that sums up the subject and gives you a little bit of a background on what you are going to be seeing in throughout the exhibit. This video was very well put together and informative. There were two places where you could hear the personal accounts of different soldiers talking about how they got drafted, and one also talked about his part in the civil rights movement. Another audio portion of the exhibit was the station that included about twenty or so songs written and performed by black artists and also talked about the war. Some were popular songs, others were very rare, but visitors could listen, and the lyrics were available as well. Since I personally love music, especially from that era, I was drawn to it. I sat for a few minutes listening to some of the different songs and briefly reading some of the lyrics to songs that had a lot of meaning. I felt the audio/visual parts of the exhibit did their job in drawing in the visitors, but did not overpower the objects and photographs placed throughout the exhibit.

The Soul Soldiers exhibit was very well put together and I greatly enjoyed it. It did a good job depicting the Vietnam War through an African American soldier’s perspective and helped to show what they went through, having to deal with fighting a war overseas and also fighting for their own rights at home. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of information included and the detail put into the exhibit. The social objects and audio/visual portions of the exhibit helped to capture the visitor’s attention and start conversation among visitors. In all, I very much enjoyed my visit to Soul Soldiers exhibit and would recommend it to many. 

Soul Soldiers is on view at the Western Reserve Historical Society now through November, 27th, 2010. For more information, visit the museum online at

Friday, October 15, 2010

Treasures of Heaven at the Cleveland Museum of Art: A magical mystery tour of shared tradition

The Crippled and Sick Cured at the Tomb of Saint Nicholas, 
1425. Gentile da Fabriano. Image courtesy of the Board 
of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
I majored in Anthropology in college mainly because I was inspired by the swashbuckling adventures of Hollywood archaeologists like Indiana Jones, who circled the globe in search of powerful treasures to add his museum's collection. I double-majored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies because I was inexorably drawn to the beauty and strangeness of the art and architecture of those ages. What I did not know when I began studying archaeology was that most of it is about moving dirt from one place to another in an effort to gain insight into cultures that have long since passed from our collective memory, and it rarely involves treasure. Likewise, when I entered my medieval art history studies I did not yet understand that for a largely illiterate population living in a dark and painful world, art was more than mere decoration, it was a pictured pathway to the divine.

This weekend The Cleveland Museum of Art opens Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe. This new exhibition gives us a precious glimpse of a culture we have left behind, and a sense of the mystery that was once at the center of a powerful Christian faith. Treasures of Heaven features dazzling gold, silver, and jewel-encrusted objects from some of the finest museum collections in the United States and Europe, supplemented by impressive marble altarpieces, and delicate parchment manuscripts depicting the lives of the saints. Still, there is something dark hiding beneath the shiny surface.

The richly toned galleries, flow from one room to the next through graceful arches, and interpretive texts appear on gothic crest-like panels crowned with delicate rosettes. These were lovely touches, but they are not what moved me. What was it then? What made me stop and contemplate the fate of those pilgrims who traveled on foot hundreds of miles, or even farther, to behold these precious objects? It was the bones.
Reliquary with Tooth of Saint John the Baptist, 
1375-1400; 900s-1000s.  Photograph by Robert 
Hashimoto. Reproduction, courtesy of The Art 
Institute of Chicago.

Throughout these serene and sterile museum spaces were beautiful vessels discretely containing, or audaciously framing the grisly remains of human beings. You may argue that these relics were (are?) not the remains of just anyone, but those of venerated saints. Still it is not saintliness, but basic human curiosity that drives the visitor to get a closer look at the pieces of dead people in the room. The same desire compelling rubber-neckers to slow down and ogle an accident on the other side of the highway, finds me staring quizzically at an ancient tooth encased in rock crystal, my mind racing with child-like questions.

How could someone wrench that tooth from a dearly departed saint's mouth? Is it really from John the Baptist, or just some poor bell-ringer who slipped on the belfry stairs? How big was the "True Cross" if bits and pieces of it were sprinkled throughout Europe in countless reliquaries and amulets? So many silent questions voiced by my inner child. One nagging thought escaped in an uncontrollable shudder while viewing an assemblage of silk-wrapped relics. How terrible must life have been in this pre-scientific age for people to go to such great, gory lengths to capture and touch the divine?

Panel-Shaped Reliquary of the 
True Cross, 

The Cleveland 

Museum of Art.

The Anthropologist in me felt something else as I toured the galleries today, something our increasingly xenophobic world could use a little more of, a sense of universality, of oneness. It was in the golden faces of saints, masks of the dead, which in many ways parallel artifacts from the great Mesoamerican civilizations. It resonated in the perpetuation of sacred remains for healing and protection. The richly illuminated texts preserving histories of the faithful shared traits with Mayan codices, Egyptian papyri, Islamic, Hebrew, and Hindu manuscripts. I remember my schoolgirl revulsion upon learning that many prehistoric people buried their dead ancestors beneath the floors of their homes, keeping them close for protection. Other cultures carried the dead around in bundles, or marched their remains out for feasts and festivals. Out of context these practices seemed ghoulish and bizarre. In Treasures of Heaven we see the roots of our modern culture laid plain as gloriously and wondrously, if not uniquely, bizarre.

Often in our modern culture, pundits attempt to reduce complex issues to 15-second sound bites. Things are parsed out for us as black or white, left or right, ours or theirs, one or the other. In this exhibit art history has its rebuttal. We are like them, and they are us. These medieval traditions and treasures demonstrate our forbears' belief in the mysteries of faith and their pursuit of magical solutions to physical problems and daily strife.

Reliquary Head of Saint Eustace, c. 1210.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
A banner adjacent to the entry of the last gallery presents a grayed image of a once bright illumination, toned-down from its full vibrancy it suggests the mystery is fading. The reliquaries and bones of the saints are followed in the final gallery by Martin Luther's sermons declaring the heretical theater of the veneration of these relics. As the Age of Enlightenment approached, the provenance and religious role of relics was questioned by reformers like Luther and Erasmus, asking the same skeptical questions I did in the previous galleries.

Here we encounter the essence and realities of faith. Even in this age of cutting-edge science, diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, and others cause persistent pain, suffering, and loss. The reality of our own mortality forces rational minds to confront the desire for a magical talisman that can drive the demons away and make it all better. People today look for healing in the hands of envangelical ministers and buy snake oil from late-night infomercials. We are skeptical, but we keep the faith, just in case. In Treasures of Heaven we come face to face with ourselves and discover we are not so different from the pilgrims, or the pagans.

An esteemed exhibit designer once told me that authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, going on to suggest that visitors do not care if an object is real, as long as it is cool. The impressive exhibition Treasures of Heaven at the Cleveland Museum of Art flies in the face of this logic. For centuries people have journeyed great distances to see these objects, and I think in this case they are worth the trip.

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