As a former professor of art history, I am looking forward to applying my experiences in teaching to the wider public. My students would tell you that, if anything, they learned from me that the study of the art object reveals so much social history: questions of who, what, when, where, how, and perhaps most importantly, why.
The art object in its contexts has always figured prominently in my teaching and scholarship. I find it a fascinating task to weave these micro-histories, ones driven by the art object, into the larger fabric that is the history of America.
For example, may I invite you to consider the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, on June 6, 2014. I had the opportunity to research the history of this historic anniversary by following Norwood Thomas, a 91-year-old American veteran of World War II who, as a young man, fought the Nazis with the 101st Paratroopers. The battles he participated in include those of Normandy, Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, and the road through Germany.
For ten days in 2014, I followed Norwood through tiny Norman villages like Hiesville and Sainte Mere Eglise. In doing so, I learned about the influence Americans had on French Normans in particular.
Today, there are numerous monuments and steles in Normandy that commemorate D-Day and the subsequent Battle of Normandy. Norwood Thomas showed me where he fought, and we discussed the significance of the monuments that had been put into place to commemorate his unit’s battles. Interestingly, most of the monuments and steles were commissioned and designed by grateful French citizens during the 1950s and 1960s.
American history is multifaceted; even though the greatest amphibious and air assault in history was made in France, Americans were major components in the story. Wherever Norwood went, Normans went out of their way to speak to him. To see them cry upon thanking Norwood for his sacrifice and service made these monuments even more meaningful.
As an art historian, it is my hope that my research and my writing will help to preserve the meanings and histories behind these important objects. The Franco-American monuments relate a shared history of triumph over tyranny. The stories of their creation, as I believe is the case in the study of all art objects, reveals an incredible history. I can’t think of anything more exciting on which to focus, as American history is a complex, wonderful tapestry, one made up of many threads, and with multiple designs to consider.