In June 1941, a Central Press wire story declared, “The latest and strangest recruit in Uncle Sam’s defense line-up is—the museum!” The release quoted the president of the Museum of Modern Art as saying, “Does it seem strange to you to think of a museum as a weapon in national defense?” Far from finding it strange, U.S. museums contributed to the Second World War in numerous ways. Addressing this little studied aspect of museum history, I foreground how exhibitions materialized different configurations of national belonging over the course of the war. From the Good Neighborhood of hemispheric unity, to Home Front as solidarity, to One World at peace, trends from the late 1930s—a reinvigorated sense of the museum as a social instrument, a new emphasis on narrative installations, borrowings from mass communications, and the conceptualization of material rhetoric as capable of producing intellectual, emotional, and embodied forms of knowing—inspired a flourishing of purposive, educational displays on current issues. These multisensory, affective encounters can be understood as generative acts of witnessing that affirmed institutional as well as individual civic belonging. These wartime activities did not resolve the 1930’s debates about the merits and drawbacks for museal practice of efforts to popularize museums. War conditions did, however, encourage wider spread experimentation than might otherwise have been the case. So, while the poles of opposition appeared to remain fixed, by 1946 the terrain in between had shifted with the advance of museum educators into the professional ranks; the continued incorporation of mass media techniques and technologies into exhibitions; and the desire on the part of many museum workers to demonstrate their institutions’ civic value by engaging in current affairs of importance to local, national, and even international communities. The dissertation’s conclusion, which argues that museums’ wartime work matters not only to historians but to contemporary practice as well, sets out the need to examine the war work of museums in our own time and to place current interests in sensory, affective, and narrative effects within the longer arc of museums’ cultural work.
Ceglio, Clarissa J.,
"A Cultural Arsenal for Democracy: The War Work of U.S. Museums, 1939-1946"
American Studies Theses and Dissertations.
Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.