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Clarissa Ceglio

Feb 18, 2022

A Cultural Arsenal for Democracy: The World War II Work of U.S. Museums

University of Massachusetts Press 2022

In A Cultural Arsenal for Democracy: The World War II Work of US Museums (University of Massachusetts Press, 2022), Dr. Ceglio argues that attempts during the war years to fit exhibition craft to the aims of social instrumentality constitute an important but forgotten moment in the field’s debates over whether museums should take active stances on public issues or, to use current parlance, remain neutral. In the book, she investigates how many American museums saw engagement with wartime concerns as consistent with their vision of the museum as a social instrument. She examines how these museums worked to strike the right balance between education and patriotism, hoping to attain greater relevance.

Dr. Ceglio focuses on exhibitions, which unsurprisingly served as the primary vehicle through which museums, large and small, engaged their publics with wartime topics with fare ranging from displays on the cultures of Allied nations to "living maps" that charted troop movements and exhibits on war preparedness. Dr. Ceglio chronicles debates, experiments, and collaborations from the 1930s to the immediate postwar years, investigating how museums re-envisioned the exhibition as a narrative medium and attempted to reconcile their mission with new modes of storytelling. She demonstrates how what today may seem standard museum practice—that exhibitions take explicitly narrative forms appealing to the mental, emotional, and physical— was still a novel and controversial idea to museums in the 1930s and ’40s.

Research for this book drew from administrative records, correspondence, and reports held by the archives of the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the National Art Gallery, the Newark Museum, the Rockefeller Archive Center, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford), among others.

This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose doctoral work focused on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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Miranda Melcher

Miranda Melcher (Ph.D., Defense Studies, Kings College, London) studies post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with deep analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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