Making History Out of Crisis

Many people believe that the now famous World War II slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” is attributed to Winston Churchill. But like many historical stories that take on a life of their own, the slogan was actually developed in 1939 by the British Ministry of Information, as a series of war propaganda posters. Their purpose was to strengthen the public’s resolve as England prepared for a possible Nazi invasion—a real possibility should Britain lose the air war in The Battle of Britain.

While over two million of the “Keep Calm” posters were printed, it was not widely used. Only a handful made it out of the print shop, the rest were destroyed after the war. Then in 2000 an original poster was discovered in a box of used books by the owner of a bookstore in Alnwick, England. This time around the slogan caught fire with the public and endures today.

image with keep calm and carry on message on poster

Man walking past a Second World War poster urging people to keep calm and carry on. | Rawdon Wyatt / Alamy Stock Photo

Although the real history of this poster’s origins may have been misunderstood, the message of calm in crisis is not. History proves that we can survive a crisis if we keep our heads, work together, and soldier on.

The Great American Treasures team never imagined that after years of work to launch a new brand, our timing would collide with a global pandemic and a crisis of historic proportions.

Of course, our immediate thoughts are for those suffering from this crisis. For so many the upheaval and loss is unimaginable. We are also thinking of our member museums on this website who’ve had to shutter their historic places and furlough staff because of the pandemic. But mostly our thoughts go out to the people working tireless hours in hospitals and as first responders, around the globe, who have truly kept calm in the face of a grave and novel situation. Both the Blitz in England and Covid-19 are assaults on a way of life, sowing death, destruction and fear. One is deafening in its carnage. The other silent. Both are frightening and life altering.

Yet, there is a unique characteristic about history: when it’s being made, it is not a hold your breath moment that stands stone still (although a quarantine has made us all more still than we have ever been). History is made by the movement and actions of many people, in many places, carrying out many endeavors during a critical time. Some of these things make headlines, but others are just the everyday efforts, hard work, and sacrifices of normal folk.

So, when we look at history we find that for every Founding Father glorified for signing an important document, there was a patriot camping on a cold riverbank. And today we find that for every prominent medical expert guiding public policy for a pandemic, there is an orderly scrubbing hospital floors. We are all contributing as we make our way through these moments. We are all making history.

This idea of history as a series of socially, culturally, politically, and geographically intersecting movements is how we came to organize the collections of historic places for Great American Treasures. These collections are organized in a way that gives us more context than just an event, artifact, or architectural style. They are boots on the ground stories of what was happening as people moved across the newly settled continent.

Our take is that history is not a straight timeline of dates like it is sometimes presented. But a jigsaw of events and actions that happen in many directions — sometimes simultaneously, sometimes successively, and sometimes under duress.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are not makers of history, we are made by history.” So in the end, introducing a new brand during a pandemic fits this moment in time. While we may heave a sigh that our world feels a bit chaotic right now, and that many of our historic sites are temporarily closed during our “big” launch, we know that this is exactly the way history happens — moving us onward no matter the crisis of the day. And we know that when the world is ready, our places will be ready to carry on too.