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Museum Musings

7.12.17: Engaging with History in ''1917''

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Does the United States have a responsibility to defend other nations? Is it patriotic to criticize the government? How would you respond to these questions?

One of the challenges faced by teachers, scholars, and cultural institutions today is how to present history in a way that audiences can identify with more broadly. NMAJH’s special exhibition, 1917: How One Year Changed the World, encourages visitors to make connections between the past and the present. The exhibition, which closes on July 16, features two interactive kiosks, each posing a question and inviting visitors to share their opinions on themes discussed in 1917.

So, how did visitors respond? Here’s a glimpse of a few of the 200+ reactions collected in the exhibit…




This question was top of mind in 1917. Although President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected under the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” the United States officially entered World War I shortly after Wilson’s January 1917 inauguration. In October of that year, the United States intervened in Russian affairs after the February Revolution.


Visitor opinions highlight the relevance of this topic today:

“The United States is one of the most powerful countries in the world. Since they have the ability to do it, they should do it.” – David, 12

“A nation’s purpose is to defend the rights and prosperity of their citizens, and…helping other nations is a waste of valuable resources.” – Abraham, 13

“As the leader of the free world, we have a responsibility to protect freedom everywhere…if we do not speak up, who will?” – Robert, 59

“Isolation makes us vulnerable. We all need friends in a dangerous world.” – Natalie, 77

“While we are not the world’s police, there is a time and place where defensive action on behalf of others is good and necessary.” – Steve, 25

“I believe the US has the right to defend those who can’t defend themselves…also, if we ever encounter war, we must do it out of love for another country not our domination.” – Jake, 16

“I am a citizen of the world. Humanity knows no boundaries.” – Lois, 60




To a “small, but vocal minority” in 1917, criticizing U.S. involvement in the war, especially in regards to the draft, was a manifestation of patriotism. While there may be agreement that criticism is healthy for democracy, the extent to which it was tolerated a century ago was very different from today. NMAJH’s exhibit features Emma Goldman, an activist who was arrested along with her partner, Alexander Berkman, for being an outspoken critic of the government.

Today, the idea of criticizing the government as a patriotic act is more widespread. Visitor respondents almost unanimously answered yes:

“Without dissent, there can be no discussion.” – Kelly, 37

“We have a responsibility to speak out when the government does something wrong. We can criticize a government’s actions while remaining loyal to the government itself.” –Robert, 59

“It is un-patriotic to sit back and let a government infringe upon your rights and those of your fellow cultures. Patriotism is the ability to criticize but still support your nation with love and respect.” – Sarah, 18

"To criticize is the only way to bring about change.” – Harrison, 15

“Criticism of the government by its citizenry is not only patriotic but necessary.” – Amanda, 40

“The ability to criticize a hallmark of American freedom and democracy. Respectful criticism is good.” – Marilyn, 71

The interactive element enriches the visitor experience in 1917: How One Year Changed the World. Be sure tovisit NMAJH before the exhibit closes on July 16 not only to learn, but to participate in the discourse. (Can’t visit? Share your responses to the above questions in the comment section below!)

Contributed by Jackie Bein, NMAJH Curatorial Intern


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