Monday, January 18, 2010

Upstate History Museum

On Saturday a friend and I went to the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville.

The best part was a temporary World War 2 exhibit. I liked it mainly because of the artifacts on display and the focus on the local area. They had on display the front page of local newspapers on various important dates of the war, and sections on the local training camps and a POW camp for captured German soldiers.

When I was younger, I always used to read the museum displays, learning what they said, while treating the things on display as mere background or visual aids. Now, I usually don't bother reading the text the museum has, because I already know most of it. I pay more attention to the period pieces, because I know enough context to appreciate what they can tell me about life back then.

For example, we read the full text of most of the newspapers on display. The news tended to be fragmentary or incomplete, lacking the clear structure and unhurried facts of a history book. It was also full of propaganda, downplaying the Japanese victories in the early war years and referring to the town of Hiroshima as a 'military base'.

There was also a copy of 'Life' magazine from August 1945. I flipped through it, and noticed several things. Most of them related to the advertisements. Whenever I look at anything really old, I find that the ads are usually more interesting an illuminating than the actual content, because they tell you more about the people and culture. They are a raw look at what people are selling and how they expect to sell it most effectively. Several of the advertisements were far more overtly sexualized than anything I am accustomed to seeing in modern media, and certainly more risque than anything you would find in a general interest magazine today.

There was a feature on the day care camps that the Nazis had set up to care for their 'eugenic' illegitimate children of soldiers and SS. It was written with an attitude of bemused contempt, but right beside it, there was an advertisement featuring a child that looked almost exactly like the Nazi children. There was also a series of fairly graphic pictures of a Japanese soldier being burned alive by a flamethrower, right next to an advertisement for Campbell's soup. I doubt the advertisers were amused in either case.

There was an interesting mistake, or rather omission, in the museum. One of the quotes featured prominently on the wall was from a woman going to a local college. It was something like "There were four women for every man. All of the men were either preachers or 4F's."

My friend, who knows a lot about history, did not know what a 4F was. I explained that it was a man who did not meet the physical requirements for military service*, someone who was not healthy enough for any kind of military job, and therefore, a man that women probably would not be interested in.

The exhibits had a lot of explanation of the basic facts of the war, enough to give a brief overview to someone who knew nothing. But they did not have any explanation of the contemporary slang used in that quote. It was almost as if they assumed that all visitors would either be extremely ignorant or extremely knowledgeable, with no middle ground.

In their defense, that would be an easy mistake to make. I did not spot anything odd about that quote until my friend asked me about it. But I have noticed that a lot of museum exhibits make mistakes like that. They explain the basics, and display things that an expert could appreciate, but make no effort to give you the context required to understand the quotes and primary sources and artifacts. All museum exhibits should be tested by someone who is intelligent and inquisitive and willing to ask questions, but has very little knowledge of the topic. Anything that they need explained, like '4F', should be explained somewhere.

*You could also get a 4F qualification by being mentally or 'morally' unfit for service. But those kind of 4F's would probably not be at a college.

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