When there’s a Sherman tank poised at the entrance of a major repository of cultural artifacts, we in the U.S. can afford to laugh. “Tanks for the memories,” goes the admittedly chuckle-worthy tagline for the exhibit We Can Do It! WWII, currently showing at the Heinz History Center. Not to worry, the heavy weaponry is just part of a trip down memory lane. The show’s driving point is that Pittsburgh contributed substantially to World War II through innovative manufacturing by its industries, as well as the patriotic service and sacrifice of its citizens. From one perspective, the tank is part of an admirable effort to get the objects and experiences of the museum outside the boundaries of its walls.
But it’s hard not to think of the old chestnut in fiction and drama that if a gun appears as a plot device, it must go off before the end of the tale. Couldn’t happen in a museum, you say? Think of the Malawi Museum in Egypt, wantonly looted in 2013. Or perhaps one of the rapidly diminishing number of Roman and other ruins in Palmyra and throughout Syria that ISIS specifically targets. On much of the globe, when a gun appears at the entrance of your museum, it will go off. Indeed, the destruction of iconic objects and cultural heritage is, historically, as intrinsic to war as killing people and conquering territory.
But violence is largely excised from this show, as it is from all but the most dire museum exhibits about war. Instead, we consider production, and learn that U.S. Steel, not unexpectedly, converted much of its production from thin sheet steel for automobiles to heavy plate steel for ships and tanks. And Westinghouse provided a wide range of products — helmet-liners, bomb fuses, electric torpedoes, tank-gun stabilizers. Less predictably, the Heinz plant was given over to making glider wings. Good to know.
- Photo courtesy of Rachellynn Schoen
- The oldest known Jeep in existence, known as “Gramps,” is part of We Can Do It! WWII. Jeep is on loan from The Smithsonian.
More vividly, the show retells the origin story of the legendary Jeep, which began as a very rapidly prepared prototype at the American Bantam automobile plant in Butler, whose regular production of sadly outdated and comically small cars had essentially ground to a halt during the Depression. The little military vehicle, manufactured in greater numbers by Ford and Willys Overland, famously won the hearts of service members and military officers, who found its unflappable real-world capabilities to be emblematic of American ingenuity and toughness.
In a similar vein, we see Rosie the Riveter. The iconic woman laborer was actually the invention of graphic artist J. Howard Miller, a freelancer for Westinghouse, and was reinterpreted by Norman Rockwell. The emblem of quite literally rolling up our sleeves and getting the job done, Rosie was a necessary mascot in an economy where women were urgently needed to join the workforce to replace millions of men departing for military service. Again, toughness applies, though recognizing the equality of women in the workforce should hardly be considered ingenious.
Here lies the mystery of this show, which the History Center created with partners including The Smithsonian Institution, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall. The exhibit chronicles some radical changes in the American economy, from Depression through war production to just the cusp of post-War prosperity. And it similarly comes just to the cusp of some valuable critiques, but it falls short of real critical force.
When the men came back, capable women were actively pressured to leave the labor force. We read this fact, but no real analysis of it. A similar mention, without a full critique, emerges for African-American service members, who performed with equal heroism, but did not return to equal rights. In a more mundane realm, the post-war Jeep became a suburban family car, as ingenuity and capability capitulated to homogenized consumption. Those early consumer models were nifty, but they embodied a shift from urgent and efficient problem-solving to thoughtless consumerism.
This is less an indictment of the Heinz History Center, which is consistently a great place to go for repeated visits, and more a lament for a broader culture that should work harder to hone critical capacities about economics and symbols. They’re things to be debated and reinterpreted, not simply taken as comfortable givens. There are places where people fight over such things with real weapons. We can certainly afford to do so from the comfort of metaphor.