WWII & NYC

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Daniel Zeiger

Published on December 29, 2012

  • Description:

    As a museum professional, I should know better than to visit other museums during the holidays. Yet this week I found myself seeking refuge from my own insanely crowded institution by trekking across the street to the New York Historical Society. Many of our volunteers recommended the WWII & NYC exhibition for its thorough depiction of how our city once overcame extreme turmoil. Having personally experienced only the last decade of New York’s history, I wondered if I would share in their appreciation.

    The bright, open and airy lobby of NYHS invited me to think historically. Filled with sculptures of famous men and women as well as a spatial organization of objects that highlights their place on a temporal scale, it prepared me to travel to a different time. Entering WWII directly off of the lobby, the mood shifted drastically. The lights darkened and I began to anticipate a sobering representation of the traumas of war, yet was heartened to learn that I would also experience the more uplifting topic of how “New York and its region contributed to victory in the second world war.” Surrounding me was the sound of a radio news bulletin describing bombing runs in London. As I turned from the entrance I noticed a tabletop radio surrounded by images of important international events. This is how most New Yorkers experienced the war. This is the time I would travel to. I was ready to begin my journey. Unfortunately, a series of design choices mixed with unusually high crowds kept my journey from ever truly taking flight.

    The wall panel introducing me to the next section was hard to find and too small to read from behind a crowd of only 4 people. Upon finally learning that New Yorkers demonstrated across the city after learning of conflict abroad, some even in support of the Nazi cause, my curiosity peaked. Yet navigating the 5 windows that detailed these protests became a game of leap-frog between me and the other visitors. Each display features multiple objects, text blocks and images in a roughly 2’ wide by 5’ high space. However, the window glass sits about a foot in front of each display and is only half as wide as the display area. Large format photographs of demonstrators frame each window, requiring the viewer to stand directly in front of a window, less than a foot away, in order to grasp the meat of the story. with more than 5 people present in the space, this visually striking design merely causes frustration and confusion.

    The cyclotron opposite this display represents a refreshing contrast. The giant object is seen easily from many angles and complemented by a copy of a letter from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt. The letter spells out the potential destructive powers of the work he and his colleagues undertook in the Manhattan project. For the first time, I had an understanding of how large the Manhattan Project actually was and a peek into how our academic sector can drastically impact international affairs.

    Another highlight of the exhibition follows in a larger, open space. I found bypassing another series of tall, windowed panels due to the crowds around them only to be drawn to a display about the Battle of the Atlantic. Here the text runs cleanly across a narrow band under a giant photograph of the New York Harbor at night. The viewer sees the city as would a German U-boat captain as he looked upon the harbor for the first time. It was thrilling to read the account of one such captain as he described his excitement at seeing the city lights followed by his recognition of American arrogance; his success at sinking several US merchant vessels and his return to Germany as a hero. This made the following series of the American tactics used to turn the tide in the battle much more compelling. Each block of text features a bold-faced heading followed by a detailed explanation. This stylistic choice allows casual visitors to quickly find topics that speak to their interests. The full wall graphic above featurs silhouettes of various vessels travelling through the harbor, each used by Americans to fend off U-boat attacks. The entire section makes the varied strategies accessible even to those who are not typical “war buffs.”

    Next to this mural however is a wall-sized case featuring a jumble of goods manufactured in New York for the war effort. Black text on gray backgrounds surrounds objects on all sides. I approached the display several times but the text was too small to read over the heads and shoulders of the crowd of visitors. Furthermore, It would take 20 minutes just to decipher which text block accompanied which object. on the side of this case sits a 7 foot display case stacked with models of all of the ships constructed at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. The ships are visible on all sides and to everyone in the room. However the labels identifying each ship face in towards the display wall, visible only to the visitor standing in that spot. Having earned a new respect for the role of these ships in the war, I wanted to attach names to them, I just wasn’t willing to wait in line to do it.

    Throughout these sections of the exhibition video touch screens featuring personal narratives supplement some of the text and objects. Visitors access these through attached handsets, but most have only one. Needless to say, most were in use when I arrived at them. I did not experience many of these kiosks.

    Following the section on manufactured goods, the visitor arrives in an area on the New York Signal Corps training facility in queens. This area receives nearly as much wall space as the manufactured goods, but text is kept to a minimum in favor of photographs taken by Signal Corps members. Though the choice is refreshing given the heavy reliance on text thus far, it is far too easy to leave this area without knowing what it means to belong to this group. A nearby screening room features a 20 minute film by one Signal Corps member. During my visit, this room was full and the next showing would start 20 minutes later. I chose to move on.

    The final section featured the personal stories of soldiers from New York. This refreshing display took over the room and featured a diverse group of service people, both men and women. The cases stood around 7 feet tall and the individuals depicted inside seemed larger than life, even though most were represented only be a headshot and a serious amount of text. These were the personal stories that I’d hoped to find when entering the exhibition. Having already spent an hour to reach this point, I simply did not have the stamina to take in all 13 stories on display. Had they been spread throughout the exhibition, I would have been able to meet them individually and place them into the context of the city. They could also serve to transition visitors from one section to the next.

    The WWII & NYC exhibition was surprisingly personal. It teemed with people during my visit but remained largely silent. NYHS exhibition staff clearly contains extremely talented writers.Yet the content felt very densely packed. Text greets you nearly everywhere you look. The exhibition’s fatal flaw lies in a lack of consideration for the experience of multiple visitors attempting to access its information at once. Had I visited on a quiet day, I would have found myself alone in many of these areas with no need to compete to see a specific panel. Fatigue would have still set in early given the density of the topic, but I would have at least avoided skipping interesting sections for the sake of comfort. The illusion set up so well through the soundscape in the entrance would have held up more easily, and I would have found access to more of the personal stories that make history meaningful to me.

    Attendance at museums in New York continues to rise. I hope NYHS embraces this success and designs future exhibitions with crowds in mind. Until then, I’ll remember a tip I frequently offer to visitors. I’ll save my visits for that sweet spot in the middle of the afternoon when field trips are done for the day.

Latest Comments (2)

Profiles in Courage

by Kinneret Kohn - December 29, 2012

Danny – I found the final room with profiles of New Yorkers to be the most powerful part of the exhibit as well. I agree with your suggestion to have them spread throughout the exhibit, highlighting their individual stories and also adding complexity to traditional assumptions about service men and women earlier in the exhibit rather than leaving that to the end.

fatigue

by Kathleen Mclean - December 29, 2012

Interesting review, Danny. Now, why don’t you try to go back during a slow day and see what it feels like in the exhibition—see if your assumption about fatigue holds up. It would be helpful to see a few images.

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