Why Would You Keep That? – 100 Years of Collecting Archives

Ephemera – “anything short-lived or transitory.”

The heart of a museum is its collection. By collecting, cataloguing, conserving and storing objects, a museum preserves information from the past so that a time period or subject can be studied by researchers or interpreted for visitors. Given the dictionary definition of “ephemera,” there is a wry sense of irony in objects meant to be short-lived and transitory in nature and use that have lasted 100 years and are preserved in a museum.

Why Would You Keep That?, the latest special exhibition opening in the summer at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, features objects that had specific functions — some were used for these purposes, others probably kept as souvenirs. What they have in common is that they help tell the stories of the individuals who acquired them. The objects provide history and insight into those serving in wartime, although some are not about a particular military activity. The items provide context for a historical period shaped by a world conflict, interpreting a global event through an array of human interactions.

The exhibition features a wide array of identified and interpreted objects from a Tsarist Russian bond, to a broadside poster advertising a baseball game between the U.S. and Canada, to a Selective Service (draft) registration card. Among the most interesting items is a poster-sized chart titled “A Weekly War Record of Feelings in England/Barometric Chart of War Atmosphere.” This item graphs feelings in Bath, Somerset County throughout the war, with highs and lows corresponding to the British and Allies’ fortunes of war. The exhibition is organized into broad categories representing home front, communication, sports and recreation and identification.

All of these objects were generated during a war and have a connection to that event, but they are not overtly militaristic or designed for a practical military application. They are the collateral material from the experiences of individuals who carried on with their lives while serving.

Though technically not categorized as “ephemera,” several posters are also exhibited. However, posters were conceived with the idea of ephemerality as they were not meant to be used or last beyond a limited time frame. Their messages were for an immediate audience and designed to influence or inform thoughts about the war. The posters have been included because the Museum and Memorial’s collection started in 1920 with this category of objects.

The exhibition is located in the Ellis Gallery on the Research Level of the Museum and Memorial. Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Museum and Memorial is also open on Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and opens an hour earlier, at 9 a.m., on Saturdays.

–By Jonathan Casey, Director of Archives and the Edward Jones Research Center National WWI Museum and Memorial (All images courtesy National WWI Museum and Memorial)

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