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Thoughts on Working as an Artist in a History Museum: Creating a New Exhibition at the WV Mine Wars Museum

June 4, 2019
The Mine Wars Museum storefront on Mate Street in Matewan, WV

“Among the hard and brutal occupations of mankind, the only one that compares with old-fashioned mining is modern trench warfare; and this should cause no wonder: there is a direct connection.”

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 1934

I have proudly worked as the Creative Director at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, which I helped to found, since 2014. My job involves the creation of our interior visitor experience (designing and building all of the exhibitions) and the public-facing graphic design that people outside of the museum see (including our merch!). I always tell people that this is one of the projects I’m most proud of, and that’s not an exaggeration — there’s some serious talent and passion in our working group, and we’ve built something rare and incredible.

This spring, I worked with historian Chuck Keeney to build our museum’s first temporary exhibition, Boots on the Ground: General Bandholtz and Federal Troops at Blair Mountain. I was down in Matewan installing everything just a couple weeks ago, with an opening on May 18 during Matewan’s annual Heritage Day celebrations. With this writing, I’m trying to pull together some of the threads of influence that I had in my mind while building this exhibition: what I’m really going after is some of the larger contextual fabric woven in and around the museum, the stories we tell within those walls, and the nature of my own practice as an artist working in a history museum.

At our museum, doing this kind of rotating show has been really important to us, but to do so takes a lot of time and resources. Doug Estepp, a collector and a huge supporter of ours, brought us the opportunity in the form of a military trunk full of the belongings of US Army General Harry Hill Bandholtz. Gen. Bandholtz was the Army commander responsible for leading federal troops in forcing the armed, striking coal miners to surrender during the Battle of Blair Mountain (1921). Doug was willing to loan this trunk for exhibition, and that’s how we got started making an exhibit about the US military’s role in suppressing a popular revolt against corporate interests.

H. H. Bandholtz on Blair Mountain

General Harry Hill Bandholtz was one of two commanding officers who dropped into southern West Virginia during the rolling boil that became the Battle of Blair Mountain in the summer of 1921. His job was to try to steer those whom he perceived as the leaders of the armed striking coal miners (and their families) to send their people home and, if they failed to do so, apply the force of the US military against these American citizens. General Billy Mitchell, his fellow commander at Blair, had the idea that the application of military force against American citizens should look like aerial bombing, and he’d ordered Army Air Service planes to the region accordingly.

From the wall text Chuck wrote:

“On September 2, 1921, after the miners refused President Harding’s warning to disperse, General Banholtz deployed 2,100 troops from the 40th, 26th, and 19th Infantry Regiments stationed in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and New Jersey. The 40th Infantry approached from the south to relief Don Chafin’s forces while the 26th and 19th Infantry Regiments moved from the north to intercept the miners around Blair and all along Spruce Fork Ridge. The miners surrendered to Federal Troops without a fight.”

If an immediate surrender doesn’t sound like your idea of a revolution, consider that the miners’ beef had never been with the federal government, but with the private coal companies and the violent stranglehold that those companies held on their communities. Yet Bandholtz, Mitchell and the troops under their command would show these mining communities that defending the interests of the fuel extraction industry was, and still is, federal priority over the demands, and basic human rights, of the citizenry.

(See also: Thoughts on the Potential for the Military Bombing of American Citizens below)

His Swagger Stick

I approach my work at the Mine Wars Museum most critically as an artist, a sculptural storyteller working with artifacts and walls. Bandholtz’s trunk is not a box of carefully cleaned pistols and battle medals. Instead, it’s an assortment of dress buttons, canvas bags, a pair of boots with unwashed socks stuffed inside, and other things like you might toss under the bed to deal with later — a mix of the intriguing and the mundane daily, if you’re a high-ranking Army officer. Many of these belongings had clearly been a part of the man’s military career from the days before he was commanding armies descending on Appalachia: Bandholtz spent thirteen years of his career as part of the US occupational force in the Phillipines.

Context is what makes an artifact, and responding to these objects creatively has a lot to do with the density of information that I know about each. For example, the very short “billy club” pictured below which belonged to Gen. Bandholtz: heavy, sturdy, and with a well-worn wrist-wrap attached to it so it wouldn’t easily be dropped during use. Knowing that a newspaper had once referred to this as Bandholtz’s “swagger stick” made it seem like an authoritarian fashion accessory. Knowing that he’d probably been carrying this well-worn baton daily for over a decade as part of his work in the US military’s violent occupation of Philippines turned it into part of the arsenal of American imperial expansionism. He brought that weapon back into the United States and wore it as part of his uniform while driving around the Appalachian hills commanding an occupying army in the coalfields, and this brought it all back home, and into the space inside our museum walls. Artifacts are never neutral, just like the technology that creates them — like a wood lathe in service to the Army, churning out batons.

(See also: Notes on War, Mechanization, Mining, & Finance below)

Installing the Exhibition

Circling back to the installation as a whole: I make the artifact mounts, I paint the walls, I cut the wall text, and I install everything. This my role at the museum, and I thrive in it, as it brings so many elements of my creative practice together in one place. I collaborated on this project with Chuck Keeney, a historian who serves on the museum board and was also deeply instrumental in getting the Blair Mountain Battlefield back on the National Register of Historic Places. We talked a lot about framing the story, how far to go with the details about Bandholtz and the troop movements, and how to present what we had in a global context in order to put southern Appalachia in relationship to other events at that time. Chuck wrote the wall text, as he also did for our permanent exhibits, and he and I have always felt a tension around how much text we should actually present. Not everyone can read quickly, or generally, or confidently enough to want to spend their time doing it in a museum. We tried something new, a push-button audio recording with Chuck recounting the chronology of Bandholtz’s time in West Virginia from a directional overhead speaker. If people interact with it enough, it’ll inform our future exhibits.

Kenny King, the self-taught archeologist and collector whose digging makes up the foundational collection of our museum, came into the process with a set of several real-photo postcards he had recently acquired. The photos aren’t attributed, and they document the troop encampments in the communities around Blair Mountain in a way that was probably consistent with an Army photographer. Why they were reproduced as postcards is anyone’s guess (I even asked postcard expert Donna Braden), and most have captions on them which were written in ink on the originals, with reproduction in mind. Nick Crockett, a fantastic animation artist currently working in Pittsburgh, shared with me a font he created based on the first of these postcards (which was already in our permanent exhibition, where he first saw it), and I used it to great effect for the wall texts in the museum, tying the photo postcards into the whole really nicely. Nick just wrapped Fire Underground, a sprawling animation which weaves the West Virginia Mine Wars, the Hatfield McCoy fued, Appalachian history, and the prehistoric ingredients of coal as part of his MFA work at Carnegie Mellon, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

After a couple of months of making mounts and all of the other set-up work I was doing at home in Pittsburgh, I arrived in Matewan with all of the constituent parts of the exhibit ready to go, but without a firm layout in mind. This we did in the museum in an afternoon, along with our new Director Kenzie New, positioning and re-positioning the various elements on the wall until we felt good about what we saw. This approach to organizing the work as we were responding to each piece of the whole installation ended up being a solid, albeit somewhat organic tactic for bringing all of the pieces together. 

Being There

There’s a lot to say for working in the town of Matewan, a place where the history of the immediate area circulates in the air in a way as dense as it is hard to put a finger on. I was putting up this show throughout the week leading up to Heritage Day, which other than the annual marathon is probably the biggest day for folks to turn out and hang out. The Saturday celebration features two stagings of a popular theatrical rendition of the Battle of Matewan with local resident actors, and the smell of fried oreos and barbecue mixes with the drone of four-wheelers from the nearby encampments of the trail-riding set. The tone of the town that day is one of palpable pride and the relaxation of an early summer weekend afternoon mixed with some ancestral reckoning on the wages of violence. For generations the urban media called this place “Bloody Mingo”, a nickname born from local government corruption before it referred to the straight-up shoot-outs and extralegal justice the place is mostly known for. Many of the residents I’m friendly with will gladly embrace this kind of characterization with about the same gusto as they would use when reflexively telling outsiders that they can go straight to hell with their bullshit characterizations.

Jim Baldwin even made his annual appearance, sporting a thin white ponytail and an open carry sidearm. Jim is a Baldwin, as in Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, the criminal private security firm that ran rampant in the region during the Mine Wars era and colloquially carried the name “gun thugs”. His calling is to challenge the Battle of Matewan narrative, mainly by arriving in person and offering alternative tours of the town, sometimes nearly coming to blows with residents while he asserts that the Baldwin-Felts agents killed in Matewan in 1920 were murdered, unarmed. The generally-accepted narrative, illustrated in the annual theatrical drama as well as in John Sayles and Maggie Renzi’s 1987 film Matewan, is quite the opposite, and our museum is actually inside a building that was at a strategic location in this 1920 shoot-out, complete with bullet holes in the brick next door. Working in the museum space on Friday, before we opened, I listened to Jim push his typical points with Wilma Steele, a community center-holder and museum board member, and Kenzie New, our Executive Director. In a key moment, I hear him arguing that the reason whole families were thrown out of their homes during the union-organizing and strikes is because, fundamentally, there are rules, and they simply broke those rules, thus paying consequences that should have been expected. “Well I just don’t see the humanity in that!”, our director Kenzie pushes back, hard.

I’m listening to the high-contrast logic of an authoritarian state coming to terms with the fundamental belief that housing is a basic human right. Honestly, it’s kind of a wonderful argument, even if I already know where I stand, because it’s happening inside our museum. History, and the telling of it, is messy, and I’m proud that we’ve pried open and nurtured a space for this, against many odds.

Additional Context:

Marching Against Labor: exhibition wall text by Chuck Keeney

Military intervention often played decisive roles in labor conflicts, tipping the balance of power in favor of industrialists. Well before Blair Mountain, federal troops ended strikes in Pullman, Illinois and Homestead, Pennsylvania. In the wake of World War I, labor uprisings swept across Western civilization and were met with brutal military suppression. Workers seized factories in Italy, Berlin witnessed the radical Spartacist Uprising, and Hungary endured a communist revolution.

Across the Atlantic, workers, many of whom were returning veterans, felt that Woodrow Wilson’s war to “make the world safe for democracy,” had been a farce as the war had ended and democratic rights remained elusive in the American workplace. A general strike in Seattle shut down the city for several days, Boston police went on strike, and 350,000 steelworkers walked off the job. Political leaders fanned the flames of the “Red Scare” and blamed worker discontent on communist spies and agitators, whom, they claimed, intended to overthrow the government with a Bolshevik Revolution. With an intense situation already existing in West Virginia and radical leadership of the labor movement firmly in place, the international and national scene only added fuel to the fire during the Mine Wars.

Thoughts on the Potential for the Military Bombing of American Citizens in 1921

I felt the title Boots on the Ground drew an interesting historical line along technological developments, particularly in relation to bombing. In the early days of aerial bombing, people like Bandholtz’s fellow officer at Blair, Gen. Mitchell, might have argued that dropping gas and explosives was an almost “humane” move: there is less risk than there would be in ground-level combat, where you might lose troops, because from the air (in theory) you can pinpoint the enemy, unload your weapons, and then go home. If that sounds like a familiar logic, we hear “boots on the ground” in the 21st century used in basically the same way: will we put boots on the ground in the form of deployed troops and all of the infrastructure that they require to survive? Or will we handle the situation with drone strikes carried out by pilots who won’t leave the safety of a room at a base in New Mexico? Drones are just the most recent in a long line of technological advancements that have brought us more “humane” tools of war. In either case, with a Martin MB-1 bomber in 1921 or a MQ-1 Predator drone in 2019, those on the ground have no real recourse or target: “humane” use of aerial bombing is a one-way street.

I also wondered if Gen. Mitchell, by 1921 a celebrity proponent of military airpower, had enjoined himself to the generalized negative stereotypes of Appalachians already proliferating in the media as he made his way to West Virginia. Their perceived “backwardness” would help frame these enemy combatants as imminently exterminatable — much the same as military commanders had viewed the recipients of aerial bombs globally. Truly, Blair Mountain was an uprising which stoked ruling-class fears of a righteous working-class revolution generally, and an example could have been made. “You understand we wouldn’t try to kill these people at first,” Mitchell was quoted in the Charleston Gazette. “We’d drop tear gas all over the place. If they refused to disperse then we’d open up, with artillery… and everything.”   

Gen. Mitchell’s airplanes didn’t end up bombing the fighting miners on Blair, and because of weather many of them didn’t even make it to the area. But private airplanes were involved in dropping homemade bombs all over the mountains during the battle. Perhaps the idea had come from elsewhere in the US — just a couple months earlier in the same summer in Oklahoma, the Tulsa Racist Massacre would also feature home-made bombs launched from private aircraft, which destroyed the vast, thriving African-American neighborhood of Greenwood.

Recommended: A History of Bombing, Sven Lindqvist

Notes on War, Mechanization, Mining, & Finance

While working on Boots on the Ground, I thought a lot about the relationship between the jobs in the coal mines and jobs as soldiers in WW1, and I kept coming back to Lewis Mumford’s critiques of mining as forever coupled with militarism. This was something I first spoke about with friend and Justseeds member Roger Peet, who turned me onto Mumford’s work when I started with the museum in 2014. One of Mumford’s tactics is to draw connections from the creation of various tools to the original context in which they were created, which is critical to thinking about what an artifact is when you’re holding it.

For example, as Mumford points out in his classic Technics and Civilization (1934), encounters with poison gases in underground mines led to the synthesizing of the poison gases which were first used in trench warfare (and would have been used on Blair Mountain by the trigger-itchy Gen. Mitchell). The ventilation masks which were created to guard against such gases on the battlefield were first invented for the protection of (some) men working in the underground mines. These overlaps are not unique to the tools, but rather express the underlying synergistic relationship of these industries to each other.

Mumford further draws a circle from mining, to militarism, to banking, and back:
“War, mechanization, mining, and finance played into each other’s hands. Mining was the key industry that furnished the sinews of war and increased the metallic contents of the original capital hoard, the War Chest: on the other hand, it furthered the industrialization of arms, and enriched the financier by both processes. The uncertainty of both warfare and mining increased the possibilities of speculative gains: this provided a rich broth for the bacteria of finance to thrive in.” (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

Many of the men who fought on Blair Mountain (perhaps as many as 25%) had served in the military during the first World War, and even wore their combat uniforms into this guerilla war on home turf. They ended up pitted against an ad-hoc force of police, middle-class citizens and other miners press-ganged into service against them: the “Defenders” on the side of the coal companies against the red threat of unionism and fundamental rights. The US Army, when Bandholtz and Mitchell brought it, was a third party — and it arrived not only to come down on the side of the coal extraction industry, but also on the side of an expansionist empire that couldn’t otherwise maintain power if the men in the Appalachian mountains (and elsewhere) didn’t keep digging coal out of the ground.

Photo taken a few minutes after the exhibition was finished, in a rare moment where I allowed myself to appreciate how hard I'd been working!

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