World War II and New York City

Review

of an Exhibition

by Alexandra Cohen

Published on April 08, 2013

  • Description:

    The New York Historical Society Museum and Library is currently putting on an exhibition about New York City’s role in the Second World War. It provides a refreshing perspective about the events of the war by focusing on activity on the home front. As a native New Yorker I felt proud and uplifted as I walked through the gallery and read stories of group and individual contributions to Allied victory.

    As you enter the exhibit, sound clips from radio broadcasts draw visitors towards a wall covered with illustrations of major war events. Everything from Hitler’s rise to power to the bombing at Pearl Harbor is represented in a series of cartoons for viewers to browse as they hear original broadcasts from 1939 through the end of the war. I noticed many visitors walked right by this part of the exhibit because on an adjacent wall was a long passage of text introducing the topic and establishing context. The wallpaper drew my attention and I often take the time to read longer wall texts, but other members of my group walked quickly past. On the opposite side of the wall is the cyclotron from Columbia University. I never knew details of the Manhattan project and texts provided enough comprehensive information to expand my knowledge and illustrate the story. A strong focus of the exhibit is how New York residents and institutions experienced a “total war” and a number of schools and museums came forward with solutions. Columbia contributed to the understanding of nuclear reactivity while curators of the Arms and Armor department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art designed protective gear based on medieval designs. New York City responded to the everyday challenges of war in a way that played a major role in defeating axis powers.

    The exhibit is text-heavy and there is a great deal of information that can seem overwhelming. Curators placed telephones and touch video screens every fifty feet or so, and visitors could listen to speeches, watch rallies, or listen to contemporary music. Their use of technology was not so overwhelming that the screens became the primary focus, and one could move comfortably through the galleries just reading the information on the wall. I picked up several telephones to hear about interesting topics such as the Stage Door Canteen and military uniforms for the sake of seeing what kind of information they provided. The media did not take the place of wall texts but rather complemented them and made the subject more appealing for different age groups. On a large map of the city colored buttons were pushed to light up various locations of important events in a more comprehensive way for the visitors who do not want to read lengthy texts and still gather meaning from the experience. The most interesting use of technology in this exhibition is the method in which staff evaluates the museum’s visitors.

    At the end of the show, through glass doors and a corresponding show in the hallway about African Americans in World War II, visitors are invited to sit in an old fashioned telephone booth and record their experiences either in the exhibit or in the war. This can be an emotional subject for visitors and the exhibit designers came up with the perfect way to record as much data as possible by recording voices. There is a guest book for visitors that prefer to write their comments and were welcomed to do so on vintage paper. I walked by a short line of people waiting to leave their thoughts in the phone book and it appeared to be a successful method of exhibit evaluation.

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