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THE STUFF OF CITY LIFE
BY JAMES TRAUB

October 3, 2004 - The Way We Live Now

A few weeks ago, I went to the much-hyped Alexander Hamilton exhibition at the New-York
Historical Society. The historical society, as the archaic spelling indicates, is one of the city's
venerable cultural institutions; two artifacts in the show, in fact, were donated in 1809. New Yorkers
know the museum, located at 77th Street and Central Park West, as one of the more modest of the great
Beaux-Arts palaces that the nouveaux riches of the late 19th and early 20th centuries built to house the
Metropolitan Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Public Library and the
Brooklyn Museum, among others. Indeed, when we think of ''cultural institutions,'' it is these massifs of
limestone and marble, with their regal borders of open space amid our dense forest of skyscrapers, that
automatically come to mind.

I was eager to see the Hamilton show not only because I've been reading all those founding-father
biographies and listening to the audiotapes and buying the beach towels but also because a drama that
has become almost archetypal at these venerable institutions has been playing itself out at the New-
York Historical Society, and the show would be the public's first opportunity to see the outcome. The
society was for many years one of those worthy institutions that make people proud to live in New York
but that very few people actually patronize. Only a few years ago, it had a very close scrape with
bankruptcy and was forced to sell parts of its collection. Then last year, on the eve of its 200th
anniversary, came what might have been a blessed turn of events: new board members arrived with new
money, new energy and new ambitions. The old director was sent packing; even the old identity was
scrapped, or broadened, to include American rather than merely municipal history.

I first heard this news in the form of yelps of pain, since the new management had canceled an
exhibition on the centenary of Times Square with which I was to be tangentially connected. But if
Times Square was losing out to Hamilton, it was hard to see what principle was being jeopardized; it
wasn't as if the museum was mounting an exhibition of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis memorabilia. The
new board members had amassed one of the nation's greatest troves of American historical documents,
and the Gilder-Lehrman Collection would furnish most of the material for the Hamilton show. I had
heard that the museum planned to spend millions marketing the exhibition and was going to plaster a
blocklong facsimile of a $10 bill (the one that has Hamilton on it) on its facade. That was all
unthinkably garish and self-aggrandizing for an institution accustomed to a high-minded diffidence
toward the public. But it was just this decline of an old diffidence and the rise in its place of an
aggressive market-orientation that were the kernels of this institutional drama. Anyway, Hamilton was
pretty garish and self-aggrandizing himself.

So, as I say, I went to the show. The first room, the kind of great airy space found in these old
palaces, offered portraits of Hamilton and his contemporaries and two enormous video screens on
which images of these figures appeared and then dissolved to show pithy quotations from them.
These apothegms were recited in a variety of fine, theatrical voices. The second, and principal, room was a
long gallery with documents and artifacts lining one wall and more giant video screens filling the other.
The first screen, bafflingly, featured a contemporary image of the White House, which gave way to the
words ''Rule of Law'' and then to one of Hamilton's fine sentiments on the subject. Others illustrated or
evoked or somethinged ''The Free Press'' (newspapers flying through presses), ''Defense'' (fighter jets)
and so on. Here was an exhibition of America's most brilliant polemicist apparently mounted for the
functionally illiterate.

And yet that wasn't quite fair. Cowering in the shadow of these gaudy and hectoring images were some
astonishing documents and objects -- contemporary notes recording Hamilton's arguments in the closed
debates of the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton's suggested emendations of Washington's Farewell
Address, a tiny locket with a bit of Hamilton's hair and a heartbreaking note in which his widow
implores the man who served as second in the duel with Burr to always wear it in memory of
Hamilton's valor. But I wandered among the vitrines in a state of utter bewilderment, since the show
included almost no explanatory text. For this I had to turn to the Acoustiguide, which was easily the
most thoughtful and serious aspect of the show. Apparently it was unreasonable to expect visitors to
actually read. I had the feeling that the curators who mounted the show and the donor/board members
who brought it into being assumed that few people cared about the objects and the history the way they
themselves did, and so in order to attract the big crowds that would justify the show's blockbuster
status, they had to make it a user-friendly audiovisual experience.

Something was being profaned here. It wasn't Hamilton, whom the show, or at least the Acoustiguide,
treated with all due regard. No, it was the institution itself that was being called into question, or
redefined, as has happened, with very different outcomes, at other venerable institutions -- the Museum
of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music. These Gilded Age
monuments are in many ways archaic places, with an archaic regard for chronology, compendiousness,
categorical crispness. But it is this very persistence, or rootedness, that accounts for the deep feelings so
many New Yorkers have toward them. They are, for one thing, places: their bulk and their age, and
perhaps also their location in the very heart of the city, have endowed them with a life separate from the
life of the things inside them. Generations of children have learned to run, when the guards aren't
looking, in the long hallway of the Oceanic art gallery at the Metropolitan. And they are companionable
places. Holden Caulfield sought solace in the dusty stillness of the Museum of Natural History: ''You
could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those
two fish.''

And these companionable places are about things; they are shrines to the particular and irreproducible
object. And just as rootedness is a diminishing category now that practically anything can move
practically anywhere, so an orientation toward things feels increasingly obsolete in our age of rampant
etherealization. The object world has been disembodied and uploaded so that we may access it without
standing in its presence. Nevertheless, we still stand in line to see the paintings that we could just as
well access online. Ditto with the dinosaurs and the fish. Three-quarters of a century ago, the German
cultural critic Walter Benjamin observed that mechanical reproduction had removed the ''aura'' from the
unique work of art, but it seems that we still feel the magic of the particular. Perhaps, in fact,
virtualization imparts a kind of threatened glory to the unique object, just as mobility does to the
implacably rooted institutions that house these reliquaries. New York has both a Catholic and an
Episcopal cathedral, but they don't impinge on the city's consciousness the way these secular cathedrals
do.

And yet there must not be glory enough, since the institutions themselves put very little faith in the
drawing power of those objects. It's not just the all-new New-York Historical Society. Arnold Lehman,
the director of the Brooklyn Museum, was quoted in The Times last spring as saying that he
would be happy if Brooklynites viewed the museum as ''a civic place in Brooklyn'' or even ''a place to
celebrate an event'' with ''no art involved per se.'' (Eventually, he added, he hoped they would start
coming for the art.) Several of the museum's most recent exhibitions have been almost wholly free of
art objects or, for that matter, of precious objects of any kind.

This is not a matter of contempt so much as of sober and even desperate calculation. The Metropolitan
Museum or the Museum of Modern Art may be able to count on a regular torrent of visitors simply by
virtue of their fame or their world-class collections, but very few others can. Most museums worry
obsessively about the gate, which is to say that they are forever trying to dream up ways to attract
people who otherwise wouldn't go to a museum at all. But it's impossible to disentangle this very real
hardship from the market mentality it seems to have spawned. Few museums aspire to be secular
cathedrals, at least if the reverence or seriousness implied by that term limits the audience. The New-
York Historical Society didn't need a blockbuster to stave off ruin; I can only assume that the ambition
to make a noisy and spectacular debut and the conviction that more people are intrinsically better than
fewer inflated what ought to have been a charming but modest show into a Major Event.

There is something deeply meretricious about the notion that we have to choose between a marketoriented
museum culture of the video screen and an elitist, pettifogging culture dedicated to the silent
contemplation of dusty Eskimos or dusty paraphernalia of the founding fathers. It need not be so. The
Museum of Natural History has become a much more exciting and interesting place since its director,
Ellen Futter, a thoroughly worldly lawyer, began to banish the ghosts a decade ago; the high-tech
interactive ''cladograms'' serve the fossils, not the other way around. It is, at bottom, a question of belief:
museums must start with the premise that visitors treasure the experience of seing unique objects in a
setting that deepens our understanding of them and then exploit that enthusiasm for all its worth.

But the high road is hard; condescending is so much easier, especially since you can do so in the name
of ''outreach'' or ''diversity'' or ''democracy,'' so that blind obedience to the imperative of the turnstile
marches under the banner of public engagement. If the imperative of outreach is understood to collide
with the virtues of the irreproducible object seen in a meaningful setting, then the object will lose, and
those virtues will come to seem increasingly archaic, like the great creamy-white palaces themselves.
Museums may continue to thrive as civic places and as sites for leisure activities, but not as secular
cathedrals. Maybe the next generation of New Yorkers will wonder why their parents felt so
sentimental about those limestone monoliths and why novelists set scenes in them. We'll have to take
them, I suppose, to the Museum of the Museum.

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