The New-York Historical Society: opening its doors to a wide audience, from children to scholars
TO COMMEMORATE THE FOURTH OF JULY, AMERICA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY, THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY HAS A TIMELY AND FASCINATING EXHIBITION ON THE RECREATION OF THE VOYAGE OF THE HERMIONE, THE SHIP THAT CARRIED THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE ACROSS THE ATLANTIC IN AID OF THE NASCENT AMERICAN REVOLUTION. THIS EXHIBIT IS A CLASSIC EXAMPLE OF THE MUSEUM’S UNIQUE COMMITMENT TO EXPLORING THE INTERRELATIONSHIP OF HISTORY AND ART. LAFAYETTE’S RETURN: THE “BOY GENERAL”, THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, AND THE HERMIONE ILLUSTRATES LAFAYETTE’S POLITICAL AND SOCIAL VIEW OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AS THE FUTURE OF FREEDOM AND ENLIGHTENED LEADERSHIP AND INCLUDES PERSONAL LETTERS, SWORDS AND MEDALS AND RARE TREASURES FROM LA GRANGE, LAFAYETTE’S CHATEAU.
TODAY, I AM DELIGHTED TO WELCOME MARILYN KUSHNER, CURATOR AND HEAD OF THE DEPARTMENT OF PRINTS, PHOTOGRAPHS AND ARCHITECTURAL COLLECTION, TO DESCRIBE THE MANY WAYS IN WHICH THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY ENRICHES THE CITY AND ITS VISITORS.
THE RECENTLY COMPLETED MUSEUM RENOVATION INCLUDES A HIGHLY SOPHISTICATED YET EASILY NAVIGABLE INTRODUCTION OF HISTORY AND ART TO CHILDREN IN THE TECHNOLOGICAL LANGUAGE THEY NATURALLY SPEAK. THE DiMENNA CHILDREN’S HISTORY MUSEUM PRESENTS 350 YEARS OF NEW YORK AND AMERICAN HISTORY THROUGH CHARACTER-BASED PAVILIONS AND DIGITAL GAMES. THE MUSEUM ENCOURAGES FAMILIES TO EXPLORE HISTORY TOGETHER AND IS ALWAYS FILLED WITH ENTHUSIASTIC SCHOOL GROUPS THOROUGHLY ENGAGED IN ITS INTERACTIVE EXHIBITIONS.
MARILYN, IN TERMS OF THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL’S MISSION, WAS YOUR EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN’S MUSEUM A BIG PRIORITY?
I think the Children’s History Museum here is one of our points of pride.
It is one of the first children’s history museums in the country. The kids can look at computers and they can push buttons which is what they like to do all the time anyway. It has a lot of bells and whistles but not only that, it tells the history of the United States through the eyes of children. So the kids come here and they don’t see George Washington as we often see him as envisioned by Gilbert Stuart. Instead, they see history from the point of view of young people just like them. For example, they meet Hamilton as a young boy – they see him on their level. All of a sudden they are learning about history but through the eyes of children and I think that is genius.
HOW, IN THE MOST PRACTICAL WAY, WOULD A HISTORIAN BE ABLE TO COME AND ACTUALLY SEE THE VAST LIBRARY OF HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS THAT THE MUSEUM HOLDS?
If they are very serious about what they are doing, they can ask for them and we will bring them out. I can’t speak to what our librarians do with the manuscripts because that is not my field. I can say, for example, that some of our architectural drawings are extremely fragile and huge and they are not easy to handle. But we know that the people who come to see them need to see the originals, and that is what we are here for.
We are here to preserve our treasures, not for ourselves but for the generations to come so that scholars, both now and in the future, can see them, and can use them, and look at the originals. This is important because if you are looking at a reproduction, you don’t see everything.
And then we exhibit our treasures, which is how the public is able to see a small snippet of our holdings. Most institutions can never exhibit everything they have. The collections are way too extensive.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?
I am working on photography now. My department, the Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections, has probably over 500,000 photographs. So I have been working on a number of different photography shows – images of the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, the works of Editta Sherman who photographed famous personalities from the second half of the twentieth century, or the work of Larry Silver and the photographs that he took of the Bronx in the 1950s. The big exhibition that I am doing is going to be four and one half years from now and it will to be a history of New York shown by photographs taken solely from our holdings, 1845 to the present.
Many people wanted me to do a photography show. I keep thinking about what makes our photography collection so great and so different. We don’t have very much “fine art” photography but our strength is in the vernacular, the documentary, the street photography, and we have amazing images and nobody knows it.
HOW DID THEY COME TO THE MUSEUM?
They’ve come all different ways – gifts and purchases. We have some of the earliest photo images of New York from the early 1850s (photography was invented in 1839). There was a time in our history when the New-York Historical Society was purchasing some of these collections – this has become a bit more difficult these days. Now, I am trying to bring in work from the 1950s to the present which was a recognized gap when I arrived here in 2006.
We are going through our huge photography collections and discovering significant objects. We have a collection called the Geographic File. There are photographs in there by photographers that need to be pulled out and recognized for the great images that they are. For example, about four years ago, one of our archivists was going through our Geographic File looking at photographs from the West and discovered works by William Henry Jackson and Carlton Watkins. This is a time of discovery – it’s great fun.
It’s all like going on an archeological expedition.
MARILYN, I APPRECIATE YOUR CONTRIBUTION TO THE LRFA BLOG PROVIDING AN INSIDER’S VIEW OF THE CURATORIAL EXPERIENCE AND OF THE RICHNESS OF THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY. SO MANY THANKS!
IN OUR NEXT LRFA BLOG, I AM PRIVILEGED TO SPEAK WITH DORSEY WAXTER OF WAXTER VAN DOREN GALLERY LOCATED BOTH ON THE UPPER EAST SIDE AND AT 11 RIVINGTON ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE. FOUNDED IN 2013, VAN DOREN WAXTER REPRESENTS THE EVOLUTION OF THE BUSINESS PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN JOHN VAN DOREN AND DORSEY WAXTER, A COLLABORATION OF TWO HIGHLY RESPECTED ART PROFESSIONALS WHO BRING EXTRAORDINARY KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERTISE TO THE MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ART WORLD.
PLEASE TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DORSEY’S EXPERIENCE. ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS ARE ALWAYS APPRECIATED.