Governors Island Explores World War II

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Students learn how to research and depict the story of the last 'good' war

Governors Island has only been re-opened to the public for the past 10 years, but the floating arboretum in the middle of New York Harbor played a seminal role in protecting the everyday lives of New Yorkers back in the 1940s. Thanks to an exhibition created by the student historians of the New York Historical Society, visitors to Governors Island can journey back to a time when the verdant parkland was the military base standing between the Germans and the Atlantic seaboard.

Given the limitations of space in the exhibit, one landmark important to the war effort had to be left out and would have probably evaded notice completely if the museum's education division had not passed on the job to its student historians, an accomplished group of high school students from all five boroughs "with a passion for making history matter," said Chelsea Frosini, managing director of the award-winning program. Working for more than six months, the students were able to piece together Governors Island's past reputation as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, one of America's foremost suppliers of ships, planes, equipment and soldiers to the Allied cause.

"These kids came in and made their own WWII story. Some of the questions they were asking were ones I hadn't even considered. It was very refreshing for me," says Mike Thornton, a curatorial associate at New York Historical Society, who spent four to five hours one afternoon teaching students about the basics of curatorship.

Jonathan Brown, a student historian since 2011 from Frederick Douglass Academy on West 140th Street, picked up quite a lot of US history from his internship but admits, "I never knew Governors Island was part of the WWII effort before, nor did [the other 12] people in my group, but that's what motivated us to look into it."

The WWII and NYC (Part Two): Photographs and Propaganda is comprised exclusively of old black-and-white images from the era that have been blown up and hung, not in a museum, but in a pre-war mansion on Governors Island that was once used to house military soldiers.

The relocation was not without its bumps and hurdles. The Trust for the Governors Island was very specific as to which building they could use, although the house they gave them "was not a safe space but more a military ruin," recalls Mike Thornton. "My gut reaction was 'Why would you dare put people in there, let alone an installation.'"

Upon visiting House #18 now, you'll recognize the same mustard color exterior and rusty door, but the inside has been completely transformed into a wall-to-wall gallery. "It was very hands-on and very demanding work," recalls Chelsea Frosini, "but our teams of teens and staff all stepped up to the challenge and produced something unprecedented and very exciting!"

The museum was also unprecedented in its visitor count. On opening weekend alone, 792 people on Saturday and 832 people on Sunday dropped by to marvel at the sundry photographs, maps, propaganda posters, and advertisements that illustrate New York's physical and moral transformation by the War.

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