The American Soldier on Exhibit at Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art

Will Dickey, Florida Times UnionBeginning Sept. 18, 2016, visitors to the Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art will be able to see The American Soldier: A Photographic Tribute from the Civil War to the War in Iraq. Although new to Saint Mary’s, the photo exhibit first launched in 2007 and is being showcased at Saint Mary’s as part of a multiyear tour. The exhibit, produced and curated by Cyma Rubin, includes photographs from nine wars, including the Civil War, Spanish-American War, Boxer Rebellion, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Why the artistic medium of photography? Photos are not a new technology, in fact it has been over 150 years since the birth of photography, according to the American Soldier website. Yet for those in the armed services, the camera has acted as a historical notebook, recording the lives and times of soldiers in the midst of war. As photography improved, so did the record of the American soldier. The camera got closer and closer to a soldier’s life as it captured hard times, humor, courage, camaraderie, honor, victory, and for some, the ultimate sacrifice, death.

Providing a glimpse of the history of the American soldier, the exhibit features men and women who served their country. The American Soldier website explains that the exhibition begins with the bloody Civil War clashes in the nation’s heartland and goes all the way through to fighting in the streets of Baghdad. These soldiers, Army and Marines, know the face of the enemy and the hellfire of war. This exhibit gives us, the viewers, a firsthand look into their realities.

Museum Manager John Schneider ‘13 said the exhibit creates an open dialogue for some tough questions. Questions such as “What is a soldier?” and “What makes them heroes? How are images of soldiers and what they do, interpreted?” Schneider is hoping to arrange special tours for students taking courses in the History, Sociology, Anthropology, and in the Art and Art History departments. Schneider hopes that this open dialogue will fuel conversations in core liberal arts classes as well as in the Seminar course that students take each year at Saint Mary’s.

War and the armed forces are nothing new on the Saint Mary’s campus. In fact, Saint Mary’s has a long history with the American armed forces. On Feb. 27, 1942 (a few short months following Pearl Harbor), then–president Brother Austin received a telegram from the Navy Secretary Frank Knox that the school had been selected as one of four locations across the United States for a pre-flight training school. Six months later, the campus became a fully functioning military training site which remained in operation until 1946.

In 1945 after earning 10 battle stars as an officer on the U.S.S. Monterey aircraft carrier, former President Gerald Ford served as a physical training and academic instructor at the pre-flight school on campus. He also coached the Football Division which was included in the pre-flight school curriculum. The American military presence on campus left a lasting legacy. While most of the buildings built during the Navy’s time on campus were torn down, Assumption Hall remains which now houses the Science Living Learning-Community and the Honors Living-Learning Community.

In addition to affecting the architecture on campus, World War II also changed the landscape of 1928 Saint Mary’s Road. The Navy flattened out the areas now occupied by Saint Mary’s Parkway and the athletic fields by pumping silt from the bottom of Lake Lasalle which was located behind Assumption Hall. Also knowing that Lake Lasalle wouldn’t be enough to sustain the freshwater needs of the training facility, the Navy negotiated with the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) to connect the campus to the municipal water supply. This also expanded water supply lines throughout the town of Moraga.

Even though Saint Mary’s is no stranger to war or working with the armed forces, this exhibit is sure to spark some passionate conversations due to its complex matter. According to Schneider, “A museum is a great place to have these types of discussions. Art is open to interpretation, and everyone has their own interpretations.” He says that with art as the catalyst for these conversations, it is nonthreatening, as individual opinions are discussed with the subjectivity of the artwork.

The American Soldier: A Photographic Tribute from the Civil War to the War in Iraq opens Sept. 18 and runs through Dec. 18, 2016. Opening day will feature a lecture at 2 p.m. in the Soda Center with Guest Curator and Producer Cyma Rubin.

For more information about this exhibit and other events at the Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art, please visit:


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