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Museum Review: The New York Historical Society


I was fortunate enough to visit the reopened New York Historical Society just before the holidays. It’s pretty impressive. I’ve visited twice before, once when the old building was partially open and once for a major exhibit during the building’s renovation with the exhibition housed offsite. They do a great job, there’s no question. I am consistently amazed at the artifacts the NYHS has. When I saw the New York during the Civil War exhibit, I was wondering how they managed to find so many mint condition artifacts, including a Lincoln-Hamlin campaign poster. Truly remarkable. The second exhibit I saw was on Latinos in New York before World War II which was also awesome because I knew next to nothing about that topic.

The main exhibit right now is slightly less successful than these two. “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn” connects the American, French, and Haitian revolutions to build a transatlantic history, reflecting the current state of transnational scholarship and building important connections between American history and the rest of the world. That’s a great idea. As usual, the curators put together some pretty amazing artifacts. They brought the original Stamp Act from Britain for its first showing outside that nation. Written on parchment, it’s absolutely amazing. I just kind of stared at it for 5 minutes. To build up the Haitian part of the exhibit, they displayed some voodoo costumes, something I certainly had not seen before. The costumes might be from the early 20th century, but they get the point across.

But while still very cool, the exhibit kind of peters out after the American Revolution. The narrative gets a little bit lost between the different revolutions, even though the curators do a good job showing the economic and intellectual connectivity of these places (and in fact, the section at the beginning on the colonial Atlantic world is arguably the exhibit’s strength). Too many artifacts are old books. It’s kind of interesting to see a first edition of Common Sense but there’s only so many old books that are going to add much to the experience. The curators do a heroic job pulling together what they can for the Haitian part of the exhibit, but there’s just not a lot of material to work with given the very few documents that exist. The recently discovered only extant original copy of the Haitian Declaration of Independence (discovered by a graduate student in history no less!) is cool, as is the painting of Haitian revolutionary Jean-Baptiste Belley with a, um, pronounced package clearly painted to express white Europe’s fears of black sexuality.

We were also rushed through the Haitian portion of the exhibit because of a special event on that floor. The staff did not tell us the exhibit was closing early even though we specifically told them that’s why we were visiting. Annoying.

The rest of the museum is also solid, mostly consisting of small exhibits. Highlights include the pistols used in the Hamilton-Burr duel and the displays of random artifacts outside exhibits; I always appreciate the open storage areas. The Brooklyn Museum also does a good job with this. I was particularly enamored with the giant wooden statue of a NYC fire chief from the 1850s; this expression of antebellum heroic masculinity in the urban context was powerful.

Less pleasing was the new movie about New York City’s history meant to introduce us to the topic. Made with massive amounts of money, the 20 minute film skims over the history way too fast, gets to 9/11 about 12 minutes in and follows with 5 minutes of New York narcissism about how great the city is. Given just how much as happened there and the fact that I don’t think tourists go to the New York Historical Society without being already pretty tuned into the city, it was annoying. 20 seconds spent on the Gilded Age versus following a cab around Times Square for 2 minutes. Blech.

My other criticism is fairly minor, but still significant I think. For as awesome as the NYHS collections are and for their very cool exhibits, I wish they realized history took place after 1865. There is at best lip service paid to anything after the Civil War. 1 or 2 of the very small exhibits cover the past 150 years. On October 5 it is opening a major exhibit on World War II in New York City, which will be a refreshing change. Still, as a late 19th and early 20th century, a period of time when New York was probably at its peak of importance in the United States, I get really frustrated to see the period almost totally unrepresented.

Nonetheless, I’d happily return to the museum once a year to see what kind of cool things they are presenting. It’s one of the best history museums in the United States and worth a visit, even for a not fully successful exhibit.

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