The entrance to the 9/11 exhibit at Embassy London shows impromptu offersings of commemorative objects that showcased how people around the world empathized with the United States after the events on Sept. 11, 2001. The pieces on display show objects that were left on the embassy steps. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations
By Joseph Angemi
On the surface, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations’ (OBO) Office of Cultural Heritage (CH) creates temporary exhibitions for the same reasons all cultural institutions do—that is, to exchange ideas, values, traditions, and other aspects of cultural identity. CH diverges from other cultural institutions by using its exhibits and exchanges to build upon the principles of international diplomacy. Their exhibits help the U.S. strengthen relationships with other countries and enhance social and cultural cooperation.
Over the past six years, OBO has celebrated milestone moments in American and Department of State history. Sometimes these have come in the form of an ambassador’s r esidence anniversary, while others have hinged on an event that shaped American history at home and abroad. Whatever the case, these exhibitions have served as a bridge between two cultures, sharing what is best between two worlds.
CH’s very first exhibition was titled “The Ties That Bind or Los Lazos que unen: 100 Years of Palacio Bosch.” In that exhibition, OBO was not only able to celebrate one of the most significant residences owned by the Department, Palacio Bosch in Buenos Aires Argentina, but also use the house as a bridge between two cultures. In addition, OBO was able to proudly showcase their role as caretaker of an architectural gem in Buenos Aires and highlight the work that would need to be done to sustain the building for the next 100 years.
While each exhibition is unique and comes with its own challenges, there is a straightforward formula that a cultural arts team uses to design an exhibition. Once the CH team decides on a topic, they conduct research, identify objects that relate to the story, build relationships with lending institutions, and formulate the logistics for the exhibition based on the gathered data. The CH team then prepares a collections catalog and produces any exhibition writing that needs to occur. The team fabricates a tasteful aesthetic for the showing and formulates logistics and shipping for all the borrowed pieces.
A short case study of the recent exhibition, “And Yet We Rise: 20 Years of Remembrance & Reflection of September 11,” allows for a better understanding of this process. Six years ago, during a site visit to Embassy London, CH Senior Curator Joseph Angemi was introduced to the 9/11 collections. These pieces, accumulated in the months and years following the events of that tragic day in 2001, expressed an outpouring of empathy and shared grief of the people of the United Kingdom for the United States. When the collection became unwieldy it was moved into crates in the embassy warehouse. Knowing that the 20th anniversary of 9/11would be a milestone, CH decided to explore the theme of commemorating the anniversary and conceived of the idea for the exhibition then and there.
Over the years, casual relationships around the concept grew firmer until eventually institutions like The U.S. National Park Service’s Flight 93 National Memorial and The National September 11 Memorial and Museum reached an agreement about the exhibit. In addition, the curatorial team selected objects of art and memorabilia that best represented what they saw as objects of healing and solidarity. All the while, graphic designers helped streamline all of this material into a clean, poignant package for a catalog and display. Finally, the team made its way to London to install this exhibition. The last step was by no means the easiest step, as it required fine tuning and painstaking review of every detail. The exhibition received international acclaim through VIP visitation, press coverage, and articles.
These showings are vignettes that capture the essence of what the heart of cultural diplomacy can be when viewed through the lens of culture and exhibitry. In June 2022, OBO will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. ambassador’s home in Paris, Hôtel Rothschild, as a residence. Titled “The Lights That Guide Us: A Celebration of Hôtel Rothschild & the Franco-American Legacy,” the exhibition will showcase everything special about the history of the Franco-American friendship through the lens of an incredible residence.
Joseph Angemi is a senior curator within the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations Office of Cultural Heritage.