Special Exhibition: 100 Years of Collecting | April 2, 2020 – March 7, 2021

The National WWI Museum and Memorial started collecting objects and documents directly from the war in 1920, making it the second oldest collecting institution of World War I material culture in the world. 

The collection was determined early on to be all-inclusive of every nation actively participating in the war. Regardless of what might happen in the future, the historical collection would remain only about what was initially called “the World War” until the second global conflict of the 20th century. The collection would also include materials from the history of the Liberty Memorial. Before a building to house the proposed Museum was built, the collection began and was stored at the public library. Among the first materials acquired were posters and battlefield maps. The Museum and Memorial continues today to collect and preserve objects and documents from the war.

A “Committee on Trophies” was formed in 1920 with Jay M. Lee, an artilleryman in the war, appointed Chairman. He reported on Nov. 17, 1925, that the work of the Trophies Committee was that “of searching for, selecting and securing suitable objects of historical, sentimental and patriotically instructive interest for exhibition.” Without truly realizing the prescient statement he would make, Lee went on to write, “So one hundred years from now such letters, documents or objects will add to the value and interest of the collection.”

With the centennial of World War I approaching in 2014, one of the major efforts of the curatorial and archival staffs was to identify materials already in the collection to match up with the large numbers of planned special exhibitions starting with Road to War, 1904-1914 and continuing through 1919: Peace? The centennial observances also spurred many thoughtful and altruistic people around the globe into making their donations to the collection during this period.

About 97 percent of the Museum and Memorial’s collection comes from donations. However, purchases of specific materials are essential: to enhance the permanent collection, to meet exhibitions’ themes and to fulfill the goal of the Museum in being an encyclopedic collection representing every country directly involved in the war. While the Museum and Memorial has a yearly objects acquisitions budget, fundraising for purchases is always necessary. Sometimes, the window of opportunity to acquire important objects and documents through purchase is very limited. Indeed, the chance of acquisition by purchase is measured in hours to a few days. Many outstanding objects have been acquired and some have been missed by lack of funds. Still, the foresight to collect globally more than 100 years ago facilitated the Museum and Memorial possessing the most comprehensive World War I collection in the world. 

The opportunity presented by this special exhibition was to highlight unique and interesting objects accumulated during the past century that are not on regular exhibit in the Main Gallery of the Museum. As such, the vast majority of objects featured in “100 Years of Collecting” have never been exhibited before. 

–Doran Cart, Senior Curator, National WWI Museum and Memorial

About The Author: Contributing Writer

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