Saturday, August 6, 2016

Ambassador Robert R. Gosende on the Warsaw USIA exhibit (mid-70s), "The World of Franklin and Jefferson"

Ambassador Robert R. Gosende on the Warsaw USIA exhibit, "The World of Franklin and Jefferson":

Gosende image from


I served in Poland as Cultural Affairs Officer (Cultural Attache) from 1974 – 1978.  In many ways this was the most scintillating tour of duty of my career.  The Polish people were never comfortable under the  Soviet thumb.  Poles told us regularly that the Soviet Union would never be able to digest Poland – that there would never be a new Soviet man in Poland.  So working among such people toward the end of Soviet domination of Poland was never boring.

The World of Franklin and Jefferson spanned the years between the birth of Franklin in 1706 and the death of Jefferson, some 120 years later in 1826, neatly coinciding with the Age of Enlightenment.  This magnificent exhibition, which included a 35,000 word text, was certainly the most thorough exhibition prepared on this immensely important period of our history as our nation was born.  It is important to understand how exactly our country came to be able to mount this masterpiece exhibition.  Though we did not realize it at the time, these were the halcyon days of the United States Information Agency

One of the most senior officers in the Exhibitions Division of USIA in the mid 1970’s was Jack Masey.  Jack was a World War II veteran, born into a very poor family in Bedford Stuyvesant who got his first real break in life when he was selected to study at the New York High School for Music and Art.  He went on to begin his undergraduate study at Cooper Union before being drafted into the US Army in 1943.  Jack spent the war years in the Army’s 603rd Camouflage Engineering Battalion alongside the likes of Bill Blass.  Following the war Jack completed his BFA at the Yale School of Art and Architecture in 1950 and joined USIA immediately thereafter.  In the mid-1970’s Jack became the USIA Designer for the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration.  When the decision was made to mount a major exhibition commemorating our revolution which would be presented at the Petit Palais in Paris, the National Museum in Warsaw and at the British Museum, Jack enlisted the pre-eminent American industrial designers of the day, Charles and Ray Eames, to spearhead the creation of The World of Franklin and Jefferson. 

Image from, above the text: After Paris, the [Franklin & Jefferson] exhibition opened in Warsaw, where it was on view at the National Museum until July 9, 1975. The show drew a record number of daily visitors. At that time, the American Embassy in Warsaw said The World of Franklin & Jefferson was the most successful and impressive show that the United States had ever mounted in Poland.

The World of Franklin and Jefferson became the visual centerpiece for USIA-sponsored activities during 1975, '76, and '77 that would be organized to celebrate our Bicentennial and highlight the prominent role that Poles played as we fought to free our country from British rule.  Early on in our discussions with the Director of Warsaw’s National Museum, Prof. Stanislaw Lorentz, and his senior staff, the Polish side announced that the Museum had received permission to mount a partner presentation to the World of Franklin and Jefferson to be entitled “Dwai Architekci Niepodleglosci Ameryki,” “Two Architects of American Independence.”  This would increase the overall size of the exhibition by over 50%.  Needless to say we were delighted with this development though it carried with a large increase in cost for the project.  Jack Masey and Charles and Ray Eames pointed out that there needed to be a seamless transition between Two Architects and the World of Franklin and Jefferson so as to assure that every bit as much care and attention was devoted to the Polish part of the exhibit as the American.   Franklin and Jefferson included hundreds of art works and objects and documents gathered from American archives and institutions for this undertaking.  The Polish side gathered hundreds of similar items garnered from Polish museums and archives and individuals for “Two Architects.” 

The installation of these exhibitions at the National Museum was a massive undertaking taking seven weeks during which my staff and I were constantly on hand at the Museum or at Warsaw Airport assuring the smooth movement of precious objects and their placement in the Museum alongside Prof. Lorentz’s superb professional staff.  One of the objects to be displayed in Franklin and Jefferson was an immense stuffed American buffalo which would not fit through any of the entrances into the National Museum.  It was eventually decided that the best way to get our buffalo into the Museum was to break a hole in the second floor wall of the building!  So the buffalo went in and out of the Museum through a hole that had to be made and repaired twice!  (Try doing that at any one of our Smithsonian building!)

Mr. [Leonard] Baldyga has written about the challenges in assuring that the pithy slogans from our revolution would be displayed such as Christopher Gadsden’s banner,  ”Don’t Tread on Me” depicting a coiled rattlesnake, and Nathan Hale’s, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” and Patrick Henry’s, “Give me liberty or give me death."  We saw right away at the opening that on noticing the slogans people began writing them down so we printed them and handed them out at the entrance.  And there was no reaction from the Polish Government to our doing so. 

Among the Polish documents unearthed for the exhibition was correspondence between Thaddeus Kosciuszko and George Washington thanking the father of our country for a grant of land that he had made to Kosciuszko in appreciation for his participation in our revolution.  In response Kosciuszko observed to Washington that he thought that our revolution was incomplete in that it did not include freedom for people of color.  Kosciuszko accurately predicted that this would lead to trouble for the nascent US which it, of course, did some 85 years later.  Kosciuszko also asked Washington to use this land grant for the education of Americans of color.

Our bicentennial celebrations in Poland carried on the nearly three years and included performances by the Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, the Juilliard String Quartet, numerous opera virtuosi and directors appearing at Warsaw’s Grand Opera, and a collection of American painting, ”Two Hundred Years of American Painting,” also presented at Warsaw’s National Museum.  Certainly the most important activity that we undertook to celebrate our Bicentennial was the establishment of an American Studies Center (ASC) at Warsaw University.  This center became first of its kind to be founded behind the iron curtain.  Our Polish partners were anxious to work closely with us on its establishment.  They saw the establishment of this center as a way for them to express their independence from Soviet thought and practices.  The ASC drew the immediate attention of people from across Poland’s university world and also from other countries of Central Europe and the Soviet Union who were unable to travel at that time to the U.S. but who could manage to get to Warsaw to make use of the splendid research materials we were able to make available.  The ASC continues to be the focal point for US/Polish academic activity in history, literature, economics, language and linguistics.  I list these activities to emphasize that the USG in these days has resources to be able to have significant impact around the world as we sought to promote US interests through educational and cultural exchange.

Unfortunately, our Department of State now has neither the human resources nor the funding nor the inclination to mount such activities today.  Educational and Cultural Affairs activities were taken over by the Department of State when USIA was merged into State in 1999.  That was most certainly a hostile takeover.  There are no Jack Maseys today in State.  There is no one at State who might be able to identify our country’s foremost designers.  There are no funds now to think about exhibitions.  State sees Educational and Cultural Exchange as an activity peripheral to its mission.   


[JB Note: Information on the Warsaw USIA Bicentennial exhibit (as well as the exhibit's display in Paris) can also be found in several boxes of the John L. Brown papers at Georgetown University; they include photographs of dignitaries visiting the exhibits and JLB reports on this event.]

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