Miami University Art Museum commemorates 100th anniversary of U.S. entry into WWI

Written by Riley Steiner, CAS communications intern

On April 6, the Miami University Art Museum marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the United States' entrance into World War I with a lecture in association with one of the three current exhibitions. The museum, free and open to the public, displayed artifacts from the period, including letters, sheet music, sound recordings, and posters.

enlarged photo of museum goers and exhibitsThe event was part of a semester-long series of three exhibitions. The program pertained to the central exhibition, "Over Here! Over Here! U.S. Propaganda and the Arts of WWI," commemorating the centennial with propaganda from the Miami Art Museum's collection, University Archives, and from the collections of the University of South Carolina and the National World War I Museum.

Curator of Exhibitions Jason Shaiman began the lecture by narrating the series of events that led the United States to declare war at 3:12 am on April 6, 1917.

"It's important for us to look at how President Woodrow Wilson's hand was forced to make the hardest decision of his presidency," Shaiman said.

Shaiman detailed how in 1915, following growing tensions and advances between the entente and allied countries in Europe, Germany sank the R.M.S. Lusitania, a British passenger ship that was carrying more than 120 Americans. Throughout the tragic loss of American lives, Wilson continued to maintain neutrality.

That changed in February 1917 when the British intercepted the Zimmerman telegram, which proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico. In return for Mexico's allegiance, Germany promised Mexico to regain the lost U.S. territories of New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.

The pressure was growing for Wilson to do something. On April 6, with support of Congress, the U.S. formally declared war against Germany.

During his part of the lecture, Shaiman displayed a lithograph print featuring the famous image of Uncle Sam pointing his finger above the words "I Want You for U.S. Army." The print, Shaiman said, is owned by the Miami University Art Museum. Originally produced in 1917, the Uncle Sam image was re-released in WWII as a call to patriotism and action.

enlarged photo of 'Over Here! Over There!' exhibitSenior Brad Terrace, who is double majoring in diplomacy & global politics and Latin American studies, performed a reenactment of a speech from the period, originally delivered by a group known as the "Four Minute Men." Made up completely of volunteers, the Four Minute Men gave 4-minute speeches across the country on behalf of the Committee of Public Information to generate support for the war effort.

"Many times, we can apply what we learned from the past to modern times," Terrace said. "It's interesting to look back and see how some of your ancestors lived in the past and what they went through."

Shaiman then introduced historian Valerie Elliott, who holds degrees from Miami and Indiana University and works at the Smith Library of Regional History in the Oxford Lane Library. She has also worked as an archivist for the Miami libraries and published Images of America: Oxford, a collection of photographs of life in Oxford during its early years.

Elliott showcased artifacts from the archives, including photographs and newspaper clips from the era that give historians a look into what Oxford was like during WWI and what activities took place in the small village in support of the war effort.

"Most of the information that Oxford residents were reading would have come from local newspapers," Elliott said.

Elliott's newspaper findings included stories from the Oxford Forum (now extinct) and The Miami Student—a call to prayer for the men at war, an advertisement for a bake sale at Lewis Place to support Belgium, an announcement about the narrow escape of Miami University student enlistees in the U.S. Army when a torpedo hit their ship. Her photos showed images such as the 450 Miami men who were training to become soldiers and the Armistice Day parade down High Street. Many familiar Miami buildings, like Bishop Hall, Alumni Hall, and Hall Auditorium, were instantly recognizable.

During those years, Miami was still divided into the university and the Western and Oxford Colleges for Women. Elliott said a lot of people don't realize there were three coexisting colleges.

"Programs like this one at the Art Museum create a window into the past for people to learn a little about what Oxford was really like back then," she said. "It helps people to remember their history."