The most widespread, destructive, and consequential conflict in history will be the subject of WWII & NYC, a major new exhibition planned for the New-York Historical Society from October 5, 2012 through May 27, 2013. The exhibit is expected to feature New York City’s multifaceted role in the war, and commemorate the 800,000 New Yorkers who served in combat while also exploring the many ways in which those who remained on the home front contributed to the war effort.
WWII & NYC will examine a metropolis massively mobilized for war, requiring unprecedented cooperation among government, business leaders, and average working citizens and affecting vast areas of the urban landscape.
A sprawling exhibition, installed throughout all floors of New-York Historical, is expected to include feature more than 300 objects, including artifacts, paintings, maps, models, photographs, posters, and other graphic materials, film footage, music, radio broadcasts, and newly recorded eyewitness accounts. Through these materials, themes ranging from the mobilization of workers to the struggles over civil rights, from the frenzy of rapid shipbuilding to the celebration of V-J Day in Times Square will be explored.
“If the American men and women who fought and won World War II can be described as the Greatest Generation, then New York’s unsurpassed contributions to the war effort can be said to have earned it the title ‘Greatest City,’” stated Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of New-York Historical. “What award-winning WWII & NYC curator Marci Reaven will show in this fascinating, and often astonishing exhibition, is how central the city was to a war whose battles were fought thousands of miles away—a story little known by most people today.”
The exhibition team for WWII & NYC also includes Kenneth T. Jackson, former president of the New-York Historical Society, who is chief historian for the project. The exhibition will draw upon New-York Historical’s extensive collections and on important loans from the U.S. Navy, Smithsonian Institution, the Mariners’ Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other institutions.
Plan of the Exhibition
WWII & NYC begins in the years before Pearl Harbor, when New York had already become the most important industrial metropolis on earth, the busiest port anywhere, the center of the world’s financial markets and the largest, richest city on the planet. As a result, New York was also at the center of both isolationist and interventionist sentiment as Americans debated whether to enter the war.
Among the materials in the exhibition bringing these debates to life are a 1941 “Wanted” poster produced by Fight for Freedom, Inc., an interventionist group, depicting Adolf Hitler as a criminal, and an October 1941 editorial cartoon in the leftist New York newspaper PM by Theodore Seuss Geisel—better known as Dr. Seuss—criticizing the isolationists.
Following the passage of the Lend-Lease bill in 1941, which enabled the United States to supply the Allies, New York became one of the chief ports for war materiel shipments to Europe. A photograph from September 9, 1941 shows more than 100 British, Dutch, and Norwegian merchant ships passing through the Narrows to start their voyages across the Atlantic.
When the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor at last propelled the U.S. into the war, New York City’s maritime, industrial and transportation infrastructures would be entirely mobilized. The urban landscape took on a martial air, as defenses in the harbor were strengthened, old forts were updated and docks became high security zones. A painting by Thomas Hart Benton, Embarkation—Prelude to Death (Year of Peril, 1941-1942), was based on sketches the artist made in Brooklyn in August 1942, as the first American troops prepared to depart for Africa.
The presence of troops, refugees, and the wartime industries gave New York’s creative and commercial bustle a military tone. A photograph of Pennsylvania Station in August 1942 shows the concourse crowded with soldiers arriving from points across the United States, on their way to embark for North Africa and Europe. Also on view is Irving Boyer’s painting Prospect Park (ca. 1942-1944), which captures the raucous, sensual mood of the wartime city through a scene of soldiers and sailors enjoying a night on the town, which the artist glimpsed from a subway train at the Prospect Park BMT station.
The publishing and advertising industries instilled a sense of national purpose among Americans during wartime, convincing them to stay the course. Target No. 1 New York City, a 1942 poster designed by the influential graphic artist E. McKnight Kauffer, evokes the atmosphere of fear and urgency in the city after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Macy’s suspended its Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1942, consigning the balloon materials to a salvage yard to be used in the war effort, and a Macy’s advertising poster expresses confidence that the balloons will return in the future. A 1943 advertisement for Maidenform bras, created in reaction to threatened government restrictions on fabric and metal supplies, emphasizes that women workers are essential to the war effort and that brassieres are “a vital necessity to women at work.”
As husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers left their homes to serve, their wives, mothers and sisters mobilized for the war effort on the home front. Among other materials illustrating this theme, the exhibition will include recruiting posters, a dress uniform and photographs of the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), established in June 1942 as the female branch of the U.S. Naval Reserve, its members serving on shore duty to free men for duty at sea. The WAVES’s training headquarters was at Hunter College in the Bronx (now Lehman College), where more than 90,000 WAVES were trained from 1943 to 1945.
Jobs stemming from the wartime economy helped many New Yorkers escape from poverty, offered new opportunities for minority groups, and inspired movements for fair employment and civil rights. An exhibition highlight is Jacob Lawrence’s painting No. 2, Main Control Panel, Nerve Center of a Ship (1944), one of a series of paintings inspired by his service on the USS Sea Cloud as part of the first racially integrated Coast Guard unit in the U.S. armed forces. The exhibition also will feature a dozen profiles of individuals from various backgrounds in the Armed Forces, representing the nearly 800,000 New Yorkers who served in World War II.
Public Programs and Publications
In conjunction with WWII & NYC, New-York Historical will present a range of evening lectures and conversations that illustrate the dramatic effect of the war on all facets of American life. Among the speakers who will be participating in the series are Madeleine Albright, on her new memoir of growing up in Europe during WWII; Ken Follett, on his new historical fiction novel about the experiences of five families during the war; and Robert Morgenthau, in conversation with Tom Brokaw, on his WWII experience.
In addition, the lectures and conversations series will be supplemented by musical performances and New-York Historical’s inaugural film series. Among the special guests who will deliver opening remarks before the film screenings are Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker; Ron Simon, Curator of Television and Radio at the Paley Center for Media; and Catherine Wyler, Producer of the film Memphis Belle.
An 80-page essay with the same title as the exhibition, will be written by Kenneth T. Jackson and published by Scala Publishers Ltd (October, 2012).
Photo: Massed infantry units march up Fifth Avenue in June 1942.