"One thing is clear. These posters are trouble."
That's the message artist Benny Nemer gave in an audio letter to Jane Becker Nelson, director and curator of the Flaten Art Museum at St. Olaf College.
And for good reason.
For the the first time in 70 years, the college museum in Northfield is exhibiting to the public pieces from a rare but provocative collection of historical artifacts: the Tetlie Collection of World War II Propaganda Posters.
The collection consists of 147 posters and broadsides circulated throughout Europe during World War II by Nazi authorities to pacify, persuade and terrify occupied populations.
The posters — ranging from ugly anti-Semitic images to announcements of executions of resistance fighters — were collected by U.S. Army historian Duncan Emrich as Europe was being liberated by Allied forces. They were later acquired by art collector Richard Tetlie, who decades later gave them to his alma mater when he died.
The exhibition is the culmination of seven years of work at the college to conserve the posters while grappling with the ethical implications of keeping and displaying them and allowing access for educational purposes. The number of artifacts on display has been reduced to seven posters and three broadsheets and the exhibit prohibits photography of the posters to prevent their misuse.
"Our intention in preserving, exhibiting and teaching with the posters is not to perpetuate the narratives contained within the propaganda, but to critically examine the dark motives and dire consequences of artful propaganda and ensure the lessons of one of the worst atrocities in modern history are not forgotten," said Becker Nelson.
The college recognized the posters' value to researchers and scholars, but only this year has it designed an exhibition putting some of the recently conserved posters on public view. The exhibit also addresses the ethical questions surrounding the material.
"The Making Known" exhibit at the Flaten includes audio letters from Nemer, a Montreal-born, Paris-based artist whose practice mediates emotional encounters with cultural materials. His audio letters, which feature a musical score created with St. Olaf's Chamber Singers, are commentaries on the posters addressed to Becker Nelson, Midwest Art Conservation Center paper conservator Dianna Clise and the late poet and Jewish Holocaust survivor Paul Celan.
The exhibit also features ethereal mobiles created from paper fragments and carnations to suggest an alternative future for the posters, rather than their conservation. There are also symbolic floral arrangements, reflecting the memorial flowers seen at official remembrance sites in France to honor civilians who were arrested or executed during the Nazi occupation.
Additional programming includes a curators talk with Associate Professor Emerita of History Dolores Peters The talk, which will be on Tuesday at 11:45 a.m. at the college's Viking Theater, will also be available for on-demand streaming. "Inherent Vice: Ethical and Technical Considerations in Conservation," a talk with paper conservator Dianna Clise, will take place on Thursday at 11:45 a.m. at the Viking Theater. It's also available for streaming. The college is also hosting a film series about France during the occupation.
The exhibition is on display through April 8 at the Flaten, 1520 St. Olaf Av., Northfield.