Published: October 29, 2012
The most widespread, destructive and consequential conflict in history is the subject of “WWII & NYC,” an exhibition on view at the New-York Historical Society through May 27. Restoring to memory New York’s crucial and multifaceted role in winning the war, the exhibition commemorates 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 national war effort.
The exhibition examines 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. The exhibition reveals a community that made great sacrifices and faced daunting challenges, but that also gained surprising opportunities.
Installed throughout all floors of New-York Historical, the sprawling exhibition features more than 300 objects, including artifacts, paintings, maps, models, photographs, posters and other graphic materials, film footage, music, radio broadcast and newly recorded eyewitness accounts. Through these materials, visitors will experience 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.
The exhibition draws upon New-York Historical’s collections and on loans from the US Navy, Smithsonian Institution, the Mariners’ Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other institutions.
“WWII & NYC” begins in the years before Pearl Harbor, when New York had already become an important industrial metropolis. Among the materials in the exhibition 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. A painting by Thomas Hart Benton, “Embarkation †Prelude to Death (Year of Peril, 1941‱942),” 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.
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 graphic artist E. McKnight Kauffer, evokes the atmosphere of fear and urgency in the city after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
As husbands, sons, fathers and brothers left their homes to serve, their wives, daughters, 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 US Naval Reserve, its members serving on shore duty to free men for duty at sea. 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.
The New-York Historical Society is at 170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (West 77th Street. For information, www.nyhistory.org or 212-873-3400.
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