historian, author, film producer

Railroad Exhibition planning with the Sheldon Museum of Art

In 2012 the United States will mark several important anniversaries for the Great Plains region, including the passage of three pieces of landmark legislation–the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act, the Morrill Land Grant Act, and the Homestead Act. In addition, the Civil War Sesquicentennial is already underway, directing further attention to the importance of this period in American history.

We are currently planning an exhibition on “Railroads and the Making of Modern America” at the Sheldon Museum of Art from January 21, 2012 through April 2012. This exhibition will coincide with the Center for Great Plains symposium on “1862-2012: The Making of the Great Plains” and will feature works related to this theme in the Sheldon Museum of Art permanent collection. Railroads shaped the landscape of the Great Plains, and they were a central actor in the drama of American modernity.

In one of the most important treatments of the railroad in American art and literature, Leo Marx explained, “The sudden appearance of the machine in the garden is an arresting, endlessly evocative image. It causes the instantaneous clash of opposed states of mind: a strong urge to believe in the rural myth along with an awareness of industrialization as counterforce to the myth.” Machinery was associated with democracy, progress, a sense of history, and a step beyond natural limits. For Marx, Daniel Webster’s defense of the Northern Railroad’s opening in August 1847 captured the trade-off or reconciliation Americans made in adapting to the railroad–the losses (of peace and repose, ugly landscapes, noise, smoke) were more than offset by progressive force of the machinery, tied as it was to the republican progress, cosmic harmony, civilization, and history. No wonder then that Henry David Thoreau treated the machine as both an interruption and a vital, electric event. Henry Adams would consider the generation after 1865 “mortgaged to the railroads” and concluded “no one knew it better than the generation itself.” Adams thought that the railroads were “but one active interest, to which all others were subservient, and which absorbed the energies of some sixty million people to the exclusion of every other force, real or imaginary.” Indeed, the railroads contributed to “a steady remodelling [sic] of social and political habits.”

The railroads have a prominent place in American history textbooks, and yet the global, transnational modernity that railroads catalyzed remains difficult to convey. Art and visual images open up this issue in ways that can reach larger audiences, including elementary, secondary, and college students. Most often, the railroad as a subject in American art has been associated with the themes Leo Marx elucidated in his landmark The Machine in the Garden–the railroad as a subject of the pastoral ideal. But the Sheldon’s collection offers a strikingly different opportunity to examine the railroad as a principal actor in the making of modernity, and in the global consequences of American railroad development.

The Sheldon permanent collection offers the opportunity to unveil the global breadth of these processes and to explore the ways railroads became symbolic technologies, shaping the modern ideas and practices of this period. The Sheldon collection includes engravings and lithographs from the Great Plains, including works featuring the Union Pacific Railroad (U-222), the Platte Valley (U-4497.1), and the Black Hills (U-4498.1). But the collection also features strong work from the 1930s and 40s (such as “Slag Heaps,” “Railroad Crossing,” and “Railway Station”). Some of this work came out of the Works Progress Administration. Finally, the collection has excellent works from the 1960s and 1970s, including Roy Ahlgren “Great American Perspective,” the “Tubes” series, and Walter Blakelock Wilson “Prairie Boxcars.”

Roy Alghren, 1973

In addition, the International Center for Quilt Studies will lend one of its “railroad” pattern quilts and several local private collectors will lend several major contemporary works on the subject of the railroad.

In 2008-09 the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Kansas, opened an exhibit on “Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830-1960.” This exhibit attempted to focus on “how artists responded” to the railroad and featured the work of a wide range of artists–impressionists, photographers, modernists, and landscape painters. The works were arranged chronologically by period, although a few categories were broadly construed (such as “states of mind”).

This exhibition will take a somewhat different approach. We will examine the ways artists captured and shaped the modern ideas, practices, and experiences made possible with the railroads and why they were so important in American history. Rather than depicting the influences only from Europe, we intend to emphasize the broader cross-border movements of the railroads and to explore their global consequences. The audience will be presented with some familiar objects depicting for example the transcontinental, but they will also see and discover the ways that the Great Plains was part of a much larger set of modern processes.