Wall Street Journal
November 22, 2011
by Bruce Cole
'A republic, if you can keep it," Benjamin Franklin replied when asked what the Constitutional Convention had wrought. He and his fellow delegates understood that knowledge of the ideals and ideas of America's founding would be crucial to the "keeping" of a nation inhabited not by mere subjects of a king but by free citizens who were to govern themselves. Yet, as numerous surveys prove, young Americans are woefully ignorant of their country's past. And their elders don't provide much of an example: In a recent survey, more than half of adult Americans attributed Karl Marx's "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" to George Washington, Thomas Paine or Barack Obama.
By denying students the history instruction they need to be effective citizens, our education establishment is part of the problem. But other institutions do a better job at filling this knowledge gap. One is the reinvigorated New-York Historical Society—part art museum, part school, part major research center, part changing exhibition gallery—which is dedicated to promoting knowledge of New York's turbulent past and its rightful, if too often neglected, place in U.S. and world history.
The New-York Historical Society holds a vast trove of paintings, historical objects, manuscripts, printed materials and ephemera, as well as an important reference library. And it's had quite a history itself. Founded in 1804, it's one of the nation's oldest collections. Although endowed with an illustrious provenance of collecting and patronage, over time it became a sleepy, rather foreboding place eclipsed by many of the city's younger, more vibrant cultural institutions.
All this ended with a shock when it suffered a near-death financial meltdown in the 1990s. Alarmed, a generous, civic-minded board of trustees came to the rescue. With its support and the appointment of Louise Mirrer as president and CEO, the institution was resuscitated.
Now, after a multiyear, $70 million reconstruction, the NYHS has been transformed from a fusty attic into an intellectual powerhouse.
The firm of Platt Byard Dovell White Architects helped shaped this new mission with skill and tact, and always with respect for the original NYHS York and Sawyer Beaux Arts structure. Moving the entrance to Central Park West from 77th Street reoriented the axis of the building, creating a more visible and commanding presence on one of the city's grandest avenues. An enlarged entrance and new windows (expertly harmonized with the original facade) open the building to the park and flood it with light. Just inside the entrance, a clear-glass barrier, necessary to control atmospheric conditions, allows one to instantly see the wide expanse of the renovated interior.
Throughout the renovation there is a seamless unification of the building's original Beaux Arts elements and the new construction, appropriate for an institution dedicated to the continuum of New York's history.
The first object the visitor sees is a very large and enigmatic installation, Fred Wilson's "Liberty/Liberté," originally made for a 2006 NYHS exhibition. This assemblage includes two busts of Washington, one of Napoleon, a balustrade from Federal Hall where Washington took his first oath of office as president, a wooden figure of a black man, and various chains and manacles. But what is it about? Slavery? Tyranny? The Constitution? No clear answer is given to the puzzled onlooker. Wouldn't it have been better to begin the visitor's experience with the clear message of a major work from the NYHS's collection, rather than this enigmantic, awkward and anachronistic construction, the single discordant note in the new building?
The NYHS's main exhibition space, the striking 3,400-square-foot Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History on the first floor, is a fitting monument to the late Mr. Smith's extraordinary support for the understanding of American history. It replaces a series of dark rooms with an open, luminous and inviting space, expressive of the expanded and revitalized NYHS.
The Smith Gallery is designed without a clearly marked path for the visitor. Rather, it is a multipurpose space housing a ticketing area (incorporating, without irony, a Keith Haring ceiling), a series of large digital displays introducing the visitor to some of the important holdings of the collection, and a "Treasure Wall" that will feature a rotating selection of large-scale works on paper. The new Robert H. Smith auditorium, also on the first floor, features a fast-paced, state-of-the-art film (called an "orientation experience") on the history of New York City.
Facing each other on opposite walls of the Smith Gallery are two major exhibits illustrating epoch-making events bridging the city's history: "New York Rising," about the Federal City, and "Here Is New York," a rotating display of heartbreaking photographs taken by New Yorkers after 9/11.
"New York Rising" is a large salon-style floor-to-ceiling assemblage of paintings, sculpture, furniture and architectural fragments, subdivided into several time periods from 1776 to the founding of the NYHS in 1804. Together they narrate the early and influential role of the city and its inhabitants in the formation of the U.S.
This novel presentation may surprise those used to the sparse display of most museums. There are so many objects (some hung very high) that traditional wall labels won't work. Touch-screen digital kiosks are employed to help visitors identify and investigate the plethora of objects, allowing them to find as much or as little information as they desire.
Throughout the NYHS there is a judicious use of digital media and an understanding of the limits of the now fashionable but often overdone and expensive tool. This is wise because visitors are eager to see the real things that transport them back in time, tangible objects from the past with their own patina of history.
On the lower level, the DiMenna Children's History Museum is a welcome addition to the NYHS. The surest way for kids to catch the history bug, which once caught never goes away, is to connect them with the past through the places where they live. This they can do by visiting a series of appropriately scaled "biography-based" pavilions that introduce them to children of all walks of life from New York's past. The education department of the NYHS has used its long history with students to create a learning ecosystem that will excite, amuse and instruct those rising generations about which Franklin rightly worried.
Two special exhibitions celebrate the opening. "Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy" in the Smith Gallery displays 19th-century narrative paintings and sculptures from the NYHS, many not seen for decades. Elegantly hung, newly conserved and beautifully lit, they reveal the breadth and depth of the collection. A readable catalog makes a substantial contribution to the understanding of this too-often ignored and undervalued class of painting and sculpture.
The other exhibition, "Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn," in the second-floor Dexter Hall, traces the origins of the American Revolution and the shock waves its world-shattering call for individual liberty sent through the Atlantic world, especially in the French possession of Saint-Domingue (the future Haiti), the location of the first successful slave revolt in 1804, the year of the NYHS's founding.
This groundbreaking exhibition has major loans, including the original Stamp Act from the Parliamentary Archives in London, seen in this country for the first time ever—and a remarkable 1797 portrait of the soldier and revolutionary Jean-Baptiste Belley by the amply-named Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson. Unfortunately, "Revolution!" is marred by a confusing installation design unworthy of such a serious effort.
This should not detract from the remarkable resurrection of the NYHS, which will now take its place as a major national transmitter of our past well into the future. Benjamin Franklin would be proud.
Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow in 2012.
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