On Friday, January 20, 2012, the “Railroads and the Making of Modern America” exhibition opened at the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska. I was the guest curator for the exhibition. I have relied throughout on Leslie Working, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and an expert on public history and museum curation and digital history. The Sheldon’s permanent collection holds excellent pieces related to railroads and railroad related themes. In addition, we have objects from the International Quilt Studies Center, the University Libraries, the Nebraska State Historical Society, and private collectors.
I visited the exhibition today with my family. Without question, one of the highlights for us was Michael Burton’s Grounding. This paintamation was composed of over 2,000 images on 2,700 frames of a 60 x 60 inch canvas. It’s a masterpiece. And everyone in the gallery today watched it.
The huge John Weaver painting of the Union Pacific engine (2004) also attracts immediate attention. Its pure realism, and its size, lead nearly every visitor to look more closely. In fact, the engine presents a strikingly life-like appearance, its rubber tubes, which protrude from the engine, seem to ask to be grabbed, as if you are looking at them in 3-D. Their little tips and nozzles look like hands. Here, the behemoth of the machine appears not only real but endowed with human features.
These works pick up on the main themes of the exhibition: the change in ideas of time and space that railroads inaugurated, the relationship of technology to society, the lives of railroad workers, and the place of nature and the pastoral in American identity in the machine age.
One of the Sheldon’s patrons, moreover, Jim Seacrest, has generously installed an electric train system in the Great Hall. The model features the Union Pacific and the Burlington lines as they run through eastern Nebraska–historic routes.
I could not be more pleased with the exhibition and the support I received in putting it together with the Sheldon’s curatorial staff. I hope that many visitors enjoy it as well. I will add the exhibition print guide and text to this post tomorrow. Here is the wall text for the exhibition:
“Railroads and the Making of Modern America”
Sheldon Museum of Art
Between 1840 and 1900, the railroad network in the United States expanded from a total length of about 5,000 miles to almost 200,000. Railroads touched nearly every aspect of society well into the twentieth century, and the disruption they seemed to cause was widely discussed and felt. Railroads brought changes in the fundamental elements of energy and production where for generations there had been nothing but continuity. The new technology seemed to indicate that people could control and direct much more than anyone ever anticipated, shaping cultures, economies, and landscapes in new and complex ways. These modern changes prompted anxiety and awe, apprehension and admiration. Historian Henry Adams, an astute observer of the period, wrote in the late 1890s that “the generation between 1865 and 1895 was already mortgaged to the railways, and no one knew it better than the generation itself.” Railroads, he continued,“absorbed the energies of some sixty million people to the exclusion of every other force, real or imaginary.”
Railroads have a prominent place in American history and in our world today, yet the global modernity they catalyzed remains difficult to convey in textual form. Visual art, however, gave expression to this modernity in a more accessible manner, and it is this that Railroads and the Making of Modern America seeks to explore. This exhibition unites objects from the Sheldon Museum of Art, the International Quilt Study Center and Museum, the Nebraska State Historical Society, the University of Nebraska Libraries, and private collections. Juxtaposing historical and contemporary representations in differing media, it demonstrates the many and diverse ways artists have imagined the railroad and its place in our world.
Exhibition support is provided by the Ethel S. Abbott Charitable Foundation,
the Nebraska Arts Council, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment;
additional support is provided by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of History.