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February 14, 2005

In the last year and a half, the New-York Historical Society has undergone a controversial transformation.

It has added deep-pocketed and opinionated board members; hired Louise Mirrer, a former City University of New York official, as its president; and taken on a new national, and many say more conservative, focus.

Now, Ms. Mirrer is building a team of her own. The society is in the late stages of a search for two vice presidents, one to direct the museum and one to head the library.

?I see those people working very, very closely with me setting forth the agenda over the next 10 years for the institution,? says Ms. Mirrer. ?We want to increase the significance of our role within the cultural sphere of New York.?

The society's new leadership--which includes two powerful trustees, Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman--has had a rocky start. Its $5.7 million ?Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America? exhibition, the most expensive ever for the museum, will close in two weeks after garnering weak reviews and smaller crowds than expected. Though museum officials say they are happy with the 100,000 visitors it attracted, original hopes were as high as 250,000.

All of this has alienated important historians, who frequently work with the museum, and brought reams of bad publicity.

More controversy is likely as the society seeks to name an art historian to run the museum itself. Ms. Mirrer signaled that intention when she chose Richard Brilliant, a chaired art history professor at Columbia University, to head up a search committee.

?Brilliant is a fine arts person, so having him head up the search would seem to be tilting toward the notion of making this an art museum more than a history museum,? says one critic.

Mr. Brilliant says that the chosen director may indeed take the museum in a slightly different direction.

?The fact is, although it's the New-York Historical Society, the collection is very rich in works of art of considerable distinction,? Mr. Brilliant says. ?It's an area in which the museum could distinguish itself without losing its historical mission.?

Despite the rift, many historians say that to be director of the society's museum is a plum job. The salary is at least $150,000, but could go higher depending on experience.

Even the disappointing results of the Hamilton show, sources say, may actually be a blessing in disguise for whoever is tapped to run the museum. The Hamilton show, widely considered to be Mr. Gilder's baby, was curated by Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor at the National Review magazine, instead of someone with direct museum experience.

?They've been burned by this Hamilton show,? says a historian who is involved with the museum. ?It ought to make them think about doing things much differently in the future, and they may be more willing to take the advice of a new director.?

Whoever gets the position will hire curators and other staffers, and take an active role in collecting. ?We're not a static institution, even though we deal with the past,? Ms. Mirrer says.