The Second World War (1939–1945) was the most widespread, destructive, and consequential conflict in history. WWII & NYC is an account of how New York and its metropolitan region contributed to Allied victory. The exhibition also explores the captivating, sobering, and moving stories of how New Yorkers experienced and confronted the challenges of “total war.”
When war broke out in 1939, New York was a cosmopolitan, heavily immigrant city, whose people had real stakes in the global conflict and strongly held opinions about whether or not to intervene. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brought the U.S. into the war, and New York became the principal port of embarkation for the warfront. The presence of troops, the inflow of refugees, the wartime industries, the dispatch of fleets, and the dissemination of news and propaganda from media outlets, changed New York, giving its customary commercial and creative bustle a military flavor. Likewise, the landscape of the city acquired a martial air, as defenses in the harbor were bolstered, old forts were updated, and the docks became high security zones.
The exhibition examines the experiences of New Yorkers on the home front and those who served. In New York City, workers mobilized to assist in wartime production, from shipbuilding at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to uniform manufacturing at Brooks Brothers. Families grew victory gardens and dealt with the challenges of rationing. Military training camps sprang up throughout the city, and nightclubs and theaters opened their doors to the droves of servicemen passing through. Each day in the crowded port a logistical miracle occurred. Sixty-three million tons of supplies and 3,300,000 men shipped out from New York Harbor—at war’s height, a ship left every 15 minutes. 900,000 New Yorkers served in the military; twelve of their stories are told through individual profiles, and in a 20-minute film shot by a Signal Corps combat cameraman trained in Queens.
Installed throughout all floors of the New-York Historical Society, the exhibition features more than 400 images and objects, including artifacts, paintings, maps, photographs, posters, music, radio broadcasts, and thirteen short films made for the exhibit, many featuring interviews with actual participants. The exhibition draws upon extensive collections at the New-York Historical Society and on important loans from the US Navy, the Museum of WWII, Boston, the Smithsonian Institution, the Mariners’ Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other institutions.
War for Civil Rights describes a “Double V” campaign waged by African Americans during WWII, which argued that the black men and women who fought for victory abroad deserved full civil rights and victory over racism at home. The exhibit, comprised of photographs, posters, and two new short films, focuses on three aspects of the Double V campaign in New York City: the Negro Freedom Rallies; the fight against Red Cross blood segregation; and the effort to integrate the Stuyvesant Town housing development.
GI Sketch Diary: Ben Brown’s World War II Drawings features the artwork of Bronx-raised Ben Brown, a corporal who fought in North Africa and in the bitter and bloody Italian campaign. Brown carried sketchbooks with him throughout his time on the front. The sketches seen in this exhibit—a fraction of the art Brown produced during the war— illustrates his experiences and the people and places he encountered.
Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History
Several World War II-related displays can be found in The Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History. Small objects from the home front, including jewelry, matchbooks, and games, are on view in cases embedded in the floor. Six video columns feature a slideshow of images, including battlefront photographs, recruitment posters, patriotic textiles, among others. And the monumental History Showcase exhibit displays wartime uniforms and related posters.
Visualizing Liberty and Democracy: The Four Freedoms, December 14, 2012 through January 1, 2013. Almost a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the United States into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress in a State of the Union speech. The president spoke of threatened international security and articulated the hope for a new world order founded upon four essential human freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression; the freedom of worship; the freedom from want; and the freedom from fear. The Four Freedoms, as they immediately came to be known, provided a facile explanation to Americans about their country’s ultimate participation in the war. Yet by 1942, only one-third of the public was familiar with what they were. Unable to serve his country in other ways, the artist Norman Rockwell became driven to illustrate Roosevelt’s vision. The Manhattan-born, Vermont transplant specialized in commercially popular, sentimental scenes of small-town life, and his four paintings of each “freedom” were no exception. Rockwell’s series succeeded in making the American public visualize Roosevelt’s lofty rhetoric, and helped them to understand what the world was fighting for. Today, The Four Freedoms endure as four of Norman Rockwell’s most iconic works, and also offer a lesson in World War II ideology and propaganda.
A display in the Luce Center highlights the role of the New-York Historical Society during WWII. The exhibit includes information and objects from staff members who went to war; ephemera and photographs from wartime exhibitions; acquisitions collected during and after the war; and insight into the changes made throughout the museum to adapt to the war.
WWII & NYC was made possible, in part, by:
Bernard & Irene Schwartz
The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation
May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, Inc.
Eric & Fiona Rudin
Jack & Susan Rudin
Elizabeth B. Dater & Wm. Mitchell Jennings, Jr.
Ruth & Harold Newman
Laurie & Sy Sternberg
The Weiler Family
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department
of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.
The New-York Historical Society is grateful to New York City Councilmember
Gale A. Brewer for her support.
Support for the exhibition publication was generously provided by
Futhermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund
Off Air for Decades, Canteen Girl Resurfaces (CityRoom)
Video: WWII & NYC at the New-York Historical Society (Thirteen)
New-York Historical Society Presents NYC at War (The New Criterion)
The City, On The Brink of War (The Jewish Weekly)
Putting a Fresh Spin on the Familiar (New York Times)
The City At War (The Wall Street Journal)
The N-YHS Takes a Look at the Big Apple in World War II (HNN)
New World War II Exhibition Explores NY’s Role (The Epoch Times)
In a Visit to an Exhibit, Recalling a Date With History in 1941 (New York Times)
WWII & NYC exhibit includes LI contribution (Newsday)
Over There, and Here As Well (New York Times)
Mayor Ed Koch Speaks At WWII & NYC Opening Reception (Behind the Scenes)
Hitler's Wanted Poster and Other Visual Snapshots of New York During WWII (Hyperallergic)
Japan Surrenders! The Documents of V-J Day (Behind the Scenes)
Photo of the day: “WWII & NYC” at New-York Historical Society (Time Out New York)
Gotham Gigs: How NYC helped win WWII (Crain's New York)
What On Earth Is A Cyclotron? (Behind the Scenes)
An Atom Smasher Is Squeezed Through a Museum’s Doors (New York Times)
Remembering LeRoy Neiman and His Wartime New York (The Huffington Post)
Historical Society Exhibit to Focus on World War II and New York Cit (New York Times)
New-York Historical Society Planning WWII & NYC Exhibit (New York History Blog)