University Archives takes a trip to the Pentagon & the Air Force Art Program

On January 20, University Archives staff members Anne Turkos and Amanda Hawk and undergraduate student assistant Kendall Aughenbaugh had the opportunity to tour the Pentagon by invitation of the Air Force Art Program.

We first arrived at the Pentagon in mid-morning, and after some pleasant exchanges with the security team, we waited for our hosts in the press briefing room at the Pentagon (also the general waiting area for visitors). Fletcher Davis, Director of Operations, Russell Kirk, Curator of the Air Force Art Program, and Greg Thompson, of the Air Force Art Program, came to meet us and escorted us throughout the building for the day. Our tour started in the main lobby, which features two gigantic quilts dedicated to the victims of the attacks on September 11th. One quilt has tiles for the names of the many victims, the other features their photographs. Fletcher explained the quilts were hung in the lobby so that the DoD workers would be reminded of their fight every day.

"Operation Enduring Freedom" by Stewart Wavell-Smith (2004.014 - courtesy of AF Art Program)
“Operation Enduring Freedom” by Stewart Wavell-Smith (2004.014 – courtesy of AF Art Program)

After viewing the 8×28 mural dedicated to Operation Enduring Freedom, we moved to an annex where Air Force art is prominently featured and discussed the program. The Air Force Art Program began in 1950 and is comprised of over 10,000 donations of art featuring aircraft or other Air Force-related subjects. Throughout the course of the day, we talked a lot with our hosts about cataloging and keeping track of such a large number of works of art and other difficulties a collection of this size can present. The art program keeps different works in various places all over world – on bases in the US, as well as in exhibits and displays in other countries. Keeping track of every photo, painting, drawing, model, or piece of sculpture can be extremely difficult!

"Iraqi Wreckage" by Harley  Copic (2004.028 - courtesy of AF Art Program)
“Iraqi Wreckage” by Harley Copic (2004.028 – courtesy of AF Art Program) 

The pieces featured in the first annex we visited were all very photo-realistic pieces, but all extremely different. Some were paintings featuring planes flying through the sky, both solo and in formations, and some were what are called “combat pieces.” These pieces are done by artists who are sent to current combat zones (areas where it’s deemed safe for visitors), and they can paint whatever they see in whatever way they choose. One of the most impressive combat pieces we saw in this gallery was a very life-like painting of a destroyed Iraqi plane, laying on the ground (left). Hard to believe it’s actually a painting, right?

Cruse scanner, used by the Air Force Art Program for preservation. The tower in the back allows the scan to adjust for varying sizes of subjects, and the light bulbs used are custom made for the amount of use this particular scanner gets!
Cruse scanner, used by the Air Force Art Program for preservation. The tower in the back allows the scanner to adjust for varying sizes of subjects, and the light bulbs used are custom-made!

We continued through the halls of the Pentagon (in which we were certain we’d get lost!) and made a visit to the art program’s digitization center, where we met John Meade. Digitization is an extremely important part of any kind of collection, but Fletcher explained how the art program sees it as a kind of “insurance policy.” Currently, the Air Force Art Program is attempting to scan and digitally store as many of their art works as possible so they can be absolutely sure they will will have high quality images of these pieces forever. Using their state-of-the-art scanner (right), the art program can preserve these fantastic pieces of art and use them in many different ways. One piece, the “F-86 Sabre Dance,” is one of their most famous pieces, and its digital copy is featured in several exhibits on display in the Pentagon, as well as other publications.

After walking around and seeing a bit more art, we had the chance to meet with Dave Bragg from the Air Force History Office and Col. Sean Monogue of Air Force Public Affairs about how these programs help preserve the history of the Air Force and represent the Air Force to a wide variety of constituencies. It was extremely interesting to hear how the art program partners with the history and public affairs staffs to support the Air Force’s mission.

The last portion of our day was spent with Al Jones, Curator for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (SecDef or OSD). Mr. Jones is in charge of many of the exhibits on display in the halls of the Pentagon. We started at an exhibit about Prisoners of War and soldiers Missing in Action. The exhibit talked about the ongoing efforts to recover missing soldiers after conflict ends, in order to bring closure to their families. DNA and digs in former combat zones are integral in finding lost soldiers, but efforts in the last few decades have solved thousands of cases for grieving families. This exhibit is supported by some of the AF Art Programs pieces which feature POWs as the main subject. More information about this exhibit can be found here. Another interesting exhibit focused on the human side of the Air Force, featuring missions like the Berlin Airlift or Tsunami Relief Efforts.

Korea: The Forgotten Victory
Korea: The Forgotten Victory
Korea: The Forgotten Victory
Korea: The Forgotten Victory

The most recent exhibit installed at the Pentagon, “The Forgotten Victory,” is about the conflict in Korea. Al explained that the committee who designed the exhibit did not want to call it the forgotten war, because the people of South Korea have benefited so greatly since the end of the conflict. While the mission of the war was not entirely successful, he said, it was still a victory for those living in South Korea.The exhibit features panels dedicated to the contributions each branch of the military made to the war effort. Additionally, a chronology of the progress of the wa has been placed on the walls, and photographs of US soldiers in the conflict are everywhere. The exhibit was so well done, and told the story of the Korean conflict so vividly,that representatives from South Korea who were sent to examine it asked that it be duplicated and re-built in South Korea. More information about this exhibit and its dedication can be found here.

Anne, Amanda, and Kendall had a terrific day learning about the Air Force Art Program and visiting many exhibits throughout the Pentagon and are very grateful to their hosts for an amazing, behind-the-scenes tour.


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