WWII: Sensory Persuasion at MoMA

The Material Rhetoric of Sensory Persuasion in MoMA’s “Wartime Housing (1942)
Clarissa J. Ceglio

“To see an exhibition as ugly as Sin, as shocking as a Coney Island horror house, small-town mayors, housing officials, clubwomen and school kids trooped into Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art last week,” reported Time magazine in May 1942. The show itself went by the staid title “Wartime Housing.” The museum had, according to Time, “caged and displayed the ‘Housing Crime.’” The crime in question concerned the shortage of housing for workers and their families who had flocked to centers of wartime production in search of employment only to find themselves living in overpriced, substandard accommodations or, worse, railroad cars, tents and grain bins. Concern for the migrants’ welfare and fear of social chaos ran second to meeting production quotas for implements of war deemed essential to national defense and victory.

Wartime Housing

A portion of Scene Three, which not only depicted the wretched living conditions facing industrial workers but also simulated these conditions by creating a dark, confined viewing space. From Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Library of Congress.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and its collaborators, the National Committee on the Housing Emergency and the National Housing Agency, conceived of the exhibition, which debuted at MoMA and then circulated nationally, as an effort that would not only publicize the housing crisis but, more importantly, would transform decision-making at the national and local levels. Described as an “exhibition in 10 scenes,” “Wartime Housing” presents an interesting case study not only for the ways in which it recast earlier messages of social reform into the rhetoric of patriotic duty but also for its explicit manipulations of space, texture, light, text and sound in conjunction with re-purposed social documentary and news media photographs. I argue that its attempt to fuse viewers’ impulses for social reform with patriotic duty revealed the conflicting aims of its government, industry and museum stakeholders.

Through this calculated appeal to the visceral imagination, MoMA conceived of a persuasive visuality rooted in material and affective experience. Thus, “Wartime Housing” is an apt example of the necessity of treating museum exhibitions not merely as visual experiences or as “texts” to be read but as multisensory, material phenomena that demand interdisciplinary analytical tools if we are to parse their conveyance of meaning through embodied ways of knowing. Therefore, the larger questions informing this paper include: how do materialized narratives and rhetoric differ from primarily textual ones—and how must one’s analyses account for these differences? In considering these questions, I will draw from the literatures of material culture and visual studies. Both fields share an interest in artifacts as mediators of social relationships and in the processes that produce meaning from human-thing interactions. Likewise, they both attend to matters of space, built environments (such as exhibitions) and museums. Despite these common concerns, however, there is less direct exchange between the two fields than one might expect. This paper will demonstrate the utility of a closer interchange as well as draw in perspectives from affect studies. Lastly, because little work has been done to explicate how museums wielded their cultural power during times of war, this paper considers the role of such exhibitions and the visceral imagination in shaping collective visions of citizenship and the nation state.

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One Response to “WWII: Sensory Persuasion at MoMA”
  1. David Brody says:

    MoMA’s role as an arbiter of aesthetics in relation to politics is legendary. This paper does an excellent job of exploring how the museum assessed issues related to housing during WWII. What most strikes me here is Ceglio’s discussion of “affective experience” and the role that curators have in designing these experiences. There is also some terrific description in the paper that gives the reader a clear sense of what it was like to go through the exhibit in 1942, including moments when the squalor of living conditions was reproduced by the museum.

    One other issue that comes to mind is the overall politics of the museum. There has been some recent work, for instance, on Alfred Barr’s political agenda at the museum, but I also am curious about what the museum’s trustees thought about shows that were somewhat critical of the United States. You mention Goodwin, but was there a larger critical reaction to Wartime Housing?

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