WW II: NYC

Part of Exhibition: WW II: NYC

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Laura Aswad

Published on April 08, 2013 , Modified on April 09, 2013

  • Museum: New York Historical Society

  • Visit Date: April, 2013

  • Description:

    WW II & NYC: New York Historical Society

    Review of the Exhibits in the Smith Gallery South and West Gallery on the first floor of the museum. Please note that there are additional exhibits on each floor of the New York Historical Society.

    WW II & NYC at the New York Historical Society is an exhibition devoted to the vital role that New York, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island and its inhabitants played in World War II; and how the contributions of the city and its people led to the eventual Allied victory. As the NYHS website says: the exhibition “also explores the captivating, sobering, and moving stories of how New Yorkers experienced and confronted the challenges of ‘total’ war.” (www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/wwii-and-nyc.)

    As I walked towards the Smith Gallery South to begin the WW II & NYC exhibit, I was thinking about WW II and what I might see within. Then I was struck by the small but poignant exhibit on the wall to the right of the Smith Gallery South doorway. It is a photographic exhibit of photographs that people took in New York and Washington, DC on the day of the September 11th attacks. There is a remnant of a dented door of a New York City fire truck that was recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center site as well.

    The juxtaposition of the two exhibits is significant. All war is about terror, the struggle for power and domination, freedom, personal loss, sacrifice and courage. I came to see an exhibition about a war that was fought from 1939 to 1945 when my parents were growing up – a war that is considered to be the most widespread, destructive conflict in history; spanning several continents. It was fought at a time when the United States had a mandatory draft.

    The attacks of September 11th on our soil are etched in my memory. I vividly remember the day of the attacks and seeing the burning towers from my street corner in the West Village. While I personally did not lose anyone in the attacks, this is the first time in my lifetime and my children’s that I have experienced a city affected by an act of war. The 9/11 attacks took the United States into a new war where the men and women of our Armed Forces join voluntarily to serve. While we as a nation do not sit home every night listening to the radio reports of the fighting going on abroad, nor are we asked to ration as my parents did, nevertheless, these two exhibits resonate because hatred exists in the world and loss is loss.

    The moment you enter the Smith Gallery South, you are met with the clear purpose and intent of this exhibit: “NYC is central to a war fought thousands of miles away. If you are a person who was 21 in the year 1939, in the year 2012-2013, you will be 94. It is important to preserve the personal memory of New York’s role – stories of sacrifice, unity and courage serve as a source of inspiration and reflection.”

    The exhibit in this gallery focuses on several aspects of the World War II, some of which are: the widespread war being waged by the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) and their reasons for domination; the Manhattan Project and the role of several scientists at Columbia University who were working with uranium for the eventual production of the atomic bomb; the lives of a cross section of New Yorkers, men and women – Blacks, Asian Americans, Jews and Gays who served a war to fight racism but who were victims of it themselves; the important role of the New York City, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York Harbor and the businesses in the metropolitan area who served and supplied the war effort.

    As a whole, the exhibit is expertly created. From the moment you enter the gallery, you hear the actual 1940 radio broadcast on a period radio of Edward R. Murrow reporting on the bombing of London. You see a wall paper that spans the years from 1936 to 1945 of the Axis powers and their reign with key international events and dates. This gives the visitor a strong sense of the conflicts that raged in China, Japan and throughout Europe – depicting the global scope of the war.

    The exhibit is very successful at demonstrating how the United States stayed out of the war through the 1930’s but sentiment at home varied. There is a vibrant exhibit wall with actual artifacts, voicing the different opinions held by New Yorkers: Support the Axis Powers, Smash the Axis Powers, Save the Victims, Stay Neutral. Stamp Out Racism. There were powerful posters, signs – one example is an advertisement for Japanese raw silk that reads: “Japan Turns Raw Silk Into Black Crepe.”

    As you leave this part of the exhibit, the very next thing the visitor encounters is the history of New York’s role in the Manhattan Project. You come face-to-face with an actual cyclotron – the atom smasher that was used by scientists at Columbia University to confirm the discovery of nuclear fission that contributed to the creation of the atomic bomb. Equally fascinating is a signed copy of the actual letter that Albert Einstein wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt where he tells him: “uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the near future.” The exhibit goes on to say that FDR received Einstein’s letter after Germany had already invaded Poland and the war had started.

    The exhibit does a wonderful job to show how New York mobilized its people and it resources to support the war. At every turn, there is some fascinating element that demonstrates New York’s significant role in the war effort. A wall showed how all sectors in New York helped with displays of actual artifacts. Some of the standouts for me are: the helmet designed by experts in Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan Museum who used their knowledge of ancient armor to design the Standard M1 helmet; to the Katz’s Delicatessen sign that urged people to “Send a salami to your boy in the army – all beef vs. pork” for those Jewish soldiers who did not eat pork; to the actual “Hitler piggy bank manufactured in New York– The Nazi Pig “Insert any coin and the Nazi Pig emits a painful squeal. The piggy bank holds enough to buy a war bond,” and the Maidenform bra company who not only modified their brassiere cloth to conserve cotton, but also made pigeon vests for the pigeons who were part of the Signal Corps Paratroopers who sent them to deliver messages behind enemy lines.

    A Milton Bradley Board Game created at the time is displayed. The game is called “Get in the Scrap”. This was a game with a patriotic purpose – to save scrap metal to use to make war ships. (This is a chilling contrast to the board game that was distributed to Hitler Youth that is displayed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.)

    The exhibit in the Smith Gallery South expertly shows the contradiction that existed at the time of WW II of discrimination against Blacks, Chinese, Japanese and Italian Americans within our Armed Forces while we were fighting the war to defeat the Axis powers of among other things, their quest for racial supremacy. FDR stressed that the world was founded on “Four Essential Freedoms: Freedom for expression and religion, Freedom from want and fear”, but visitors to the exhibit can read the personal accounts of these Americans who were encountering discrimination by our military.

    There are 12 personal portraits of people who served. Some include a Black soldier, a Jew, a Japanese-American nurse who worked at Bellevue who tried several times to enlist as a medical worker. Each had a picture, facts about the person and personal artifacts. There were love letters written to a fiancée; a telegram from the Department of War announcing to a woman that her husband was gravely injured in battle and the subsequent telegram she received announcing his death; a medal of honor.

    As you exit the Smith South Gallery, you immediately see the corresponding exhibit in the West Gallery devoted to the war for Civil Rights in the United States that was being waged by the likes of Paul Robeson and others. Graphic images are painted on the wall that highlight fighting for “victory over Hitlers abroad and at home.” There is a section about the Red Cross discriminating against Blacks who wished to donate blood for the war effort. “Stop blood segregation.”

    The use of screens and technology is minimal but used meaning fully. At many of the displays there is an old style phone with a discrete video screen. The visitor picks up the receiver and touches the screen to listen to the audio of actual footage or personal accounts through the telephone, or the music of the era. This is effective because the audio becomes a personal experience and not a disruption to the person next to you. There are similar uses of video screens and phones throughout the exhibit. Equally compelling is the use of red used in the labels and signage and the arrows that catch one’s directing you to the next part of the exhibit.

    There is a fascinating map of the five boroughs on a 5-sided table. As you circle the table you can read about various industries and business in the 5 boroughs and how they aided the war effort. Pressing a corresponding button the visitor sees a color-coded light illuminate to see where it was located in the borough. This gives you a real sense of the scope of the metropolitan areas involvement in the war effort.

    From the importance of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to the role of women in the work force; to something as powerful as a bound package of gauze bandages; and a victory flag that hung in New Yorkers’ windows, this exhibit in the Smith Gallery South and West Gallery illuminates New York’s significant role in WW II so movingly.

    There are a few final elements that were extremely well done: the Victory Gardens that New Yorkers planted in window boxes to grow vegetables and the actual victory garden that was planted for the exhibit with small tomatoes starting to grow on the vine; as well as the artist Mike Smith’s “Fire Escape #6, a miniature fire escape with little gardens growing.

    The last object is the old phone booth that beckons visitors in to record their memories of war and thoughts on the WW II: NYC exhibit. As I sat in the phone booth, there was so much to reflect on: the exhibit I had just experienced, thoughts of war and sacrifice, shock and intrigue about things I learned and thoughts of my parents generation and what it must have been like for them to live through this devastating war.

    This is a very comprehensive and moving exhibit. It is one for the ages. It is important for the generation who grew up in the era of WW II to recall and remember and for younger generations to experience and to never forget. Overall, this part of the overall exhibit does a tremendous job accomplishing its intent. It is a moving tribute to New York’s role in the war and the people who served.

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