Museums, by definition, are repositories of the past.
But the good ones continue to keep things fresh – and not with small changes.
That certainly applies to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which continues to add exhibits and space.
Following the success of its Air Power Expo and the launching of the restored PT 305, the museum’s latest permanent exhibit, “The Arsenal of Democracy,” opens to the public Saturday, the week of the anniversary of D-Day.
The 10,000-square-foot salute to the homefront is funded by the Brown Foundation, of Houston, which is linked to the war by Brown Shipbuilding, a major supplier to the military during WWII.
“Until now, the museum’s main focus has been on the fighting,” said Rob Citino, the museum’s senior historian. “But if you want to tell the story of World War II, you have to give at least equal time to the homefront.”
Indeed. Although 16 million Americans were in uniform during the war, that’s only a little more than 10 percent of the country’s population at the time.
And not all of the young men were away. Of the major combatants, only the U.S. and China had less than half of its men ages 18-35 in the military.
But there were few, if any, American families who weren’t directly affected by the war to some degree, even those without a close relative in the service.
“There are so many stories wrapped up in the big story of World War II,” said Kim Guise, the museum’s assistant director of curatorial services. “We’ve kind of kept the homefront on the back burner until now.
“But now it’s time to bring it forward.”
The exhibit also is a reminder of the origins of the museum – outgoing museum CEO Nick Mueller and museum founder Stephen Ambrose, both then history professors at the University of New Orleans, were intrigued by the contributions of the Higgins boat, manufactured in New Orleans, in helping to win the war. The desire to tell that story resulted in what began as the D-Day Museum, which opened in 2000.
“Arsenal of Democracy,” which has been two years in development and is on the second floor of the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, spotlights the massive mobilization of American manufacturing, which produced more goods than the Axis combined, tipping the scales in the Allies’ favor.
It’s a tribute to American ingenuity and know-how. Seemingly overnight, factories went from making typewriters to machine guns and from refrigerators to airplane parts, because there was no time to waste.
The exhibit also highlights the domestic side, complete with a “Main Street” showing how shop windows and movie marquees of the time looked, along with a home decorated in the style of the period – right down to a Radio Flyer, the classic little red wagon, sitting on the back porch full of metal collected for a scrap drive.
The living room features a world map, a reminder of a February 1942 fireside chat in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked listeners to follow along as he described the status of the global conflict.
There are poignant reminders of the human cost of war, too, such as letters home from Myron Murphy, a sailor from Vermont who died aboard the battleship Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor, along with the gold star flag his mother hung in her window to signal her loss.
There’s also the oral history of Lorraine McCaslin, who was alone at home when the word was delivered that her brother had been killed in action.
Noble sacrifice was a hallmark of the times. But there also were discordant voices.
The first gallery – “The Gathering Storm” – addresses the arguments made by isolationists that America should stay out of the war.
After the fall of France in spring 1940, those voices were less prominent, and in December, Roosevelt coined the phrase “arsenal of democracy” in a radio address, announcing manufacturing support for Great Britain.
The war effort demanded that the nation utilize more of its human capital than ever. Women went to work, and new employment opportunities emerged for African-Americans, both in the South and in places such as Ford’s Willow Run assembly line in Michigan.
It’s cliché now to say that the homefront was unified in its fight against the Axis. And it’s not entirely true.
Thousands of Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps during the war. There were riots in Detroit and Los Angeles and continuing discrimination against African-Americans. The military was still segregated.
In fact, the war created tremendous social upheaval from the beginning of civil rights movement to the diaspora of thousands of African-Americans from the South to the Midwest and West Coast. Women’s horizons broadened with the absence of so many men in previously all-male fields.
Those are issues that didn’t get much play when the museum opened in 2000, when the heroism of “The Greatest Generation” was unquestioned.
“History can be messy sometimes,” Citino said. “As heroic as the American war efforts were, then and now this country has work to do to build a just society.”
The war changed American life in other ways, too.
There were momentous developments in science, technology, food production and medicine, ranging from the creation of the atomic bomb to the invention of MM’s because ordinary chocolate rations for soldiers melted too easily.
The exhibit itself has more interactive features than its predecessors. And, Citino added, the museum isn’t finished. “Liberation” is the next major project, and the postwar world has yet to be addressed.
“With visionary leadership and good fundraising, you can move mountains,” he said. “We’ve got a few more tricks up our sleeves.”