SHIFT AT HISTORICAL SOCIETY RAISES CONCERNS
BY ROBIN POGREBIN and GLENN COLLINS
July 19, 2004 Monday Correction Appended Late Edition - Final
For the New-York Historical Society, the promise of a long-awaited
chapter of financial stability and higher visibility now seems just
around the corner -- or in the basement, to be precise.
A year ago Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, two wealthy
businessmen, joined the society's board, lent the institution their
renowned collection of historical documents and created a $1 million
vault in the basement of the society's building on Central Park West to
house the archive at their own expense.
Already the benefits are evident. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of
American History has moved its operations to the society, including a
reading room for scholars and students. Board members are giving more
money. And the society can draw on the collection and its staff for
exhibitions, as it has for a forthcoming Alexander Hamilton show, the
first to be presented by the society's new president, Louise Mirrer,
whom Mr. Gilder helped recruit.
But the collection is not yet the society's to keep. For the moment
it is only on deposit. The archive had other suitors, including the
Morgan Library, where the documents resided for more than a decade and
whose director said he would welcome their return. Mr. Gilder said that
the New York Public Library, too, lobbied hard to get the collection.
The library declined comment.
At the same time Mr. Gilder and Mr. Lehrman, both conservative
Republicans, are leading the society's shift toward a broader view of
its mandate, emphasizing American rather than local history. Mr. Gilder,
a money manager, acknowledged that the men chose the society in part
because they feared the collection would be overshadowed at a large
institution like the public library.
All this suggests to some historians and society staff members that
Mr. Gilder and Mr. Lehrman are dangling the prize of their collection on
the condition that the society go along with their interests, and that
they have chosen the society because its history of financial weakness
has left it malleable.
''I am troubled by the direction apparently being charted by the
historical society,'' said Mike Wallace, a professor of history at John
Jay College of Criminal Justice and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for
history in 1999, adding that he had ''high regard'' for Dr. Mirrer and
respect for Mr. Gilder's ' 'passion for history.''
Still, Mr. Wallace added, ''the many hundreds of people who rallied
successfully to keep the N.-Y.H.S. alive over the past decade did not do
so to have it wind up as a subsidiary of the Gilder Lehrman Institute,
which would then jettison its city emphasis.''
In an interview Mr. Gilder acknowledged that he and Mr. Lehrman were
evaluating the society on the basis, among other things, of whether it
fulfilled their desire to make its focus more national.
''Having invested $1 million in the vault, it's the society's to
lose,'' Mr. Gilder said of the collection, which includes signed copies
of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, which bans
slavery. ''We really want to end up giving it to them. It makes a lot of
sense. It could have a special identity. ''
Influence of Big Donors
Museums have long had complicated relations with big donors who take
a strong interest in the stories told in their halls. But across the
country, questions about the extent of wealthy trustees' influence on
content have grown as charitable contributions have declined.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, for example, came under
criticism from historians in May 2001 when it accepted a $38 million
gift from a businesswoman, Catherine B. Reynolds, who insisted that she
have a say in picking those who would select the 100 prominent Americans
to be honored by the exhibition she was financing. Ms. Reynolds
ultimately withdrew most of the gift.
At the historical society the rising influence of Mr. Gilder and Mr.
Lehrman, and the presence of their collection in the basement, has
raised questions among insiders and outsiders about whether the
institute might ultimately eclipse the society.
''There is the potential for conflict of interest,'' said Terry L.
Davis, the president and chief executive of the American Association for
State and Local History, based in Nashville. ''The important thing is
that the board really knows what it's doing and doesn't let the money
coming in rule the mission of this institution.''
Board members and Dr. Mirrer, a medievalist who was formerly
executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at the City University of
New York, say they are conscious of that danger but discount it.
''I would hope that over time the collection, if not owned by this
institution, would be seen as an integral part of our holding,'' Dr.
Mirrer said. ''We have a treasure here. Everyone is going to work
closely together. It 's not going to be an adversarial relationship.''
The documentary filmmaker Ric Burns was recently recruited to the
society's board by Mr. Gilder. ''Any institution in the world would be
grateful,'' Mr. Burns said, for the involvement of Mr. Gilder and Mr.
Richard W. Edelman, the society's treasurer, credited Mr. Gilder and
Mr. Lehrman with increasing the level of giving among fellow board
members. In 2000 trustees were expected to give or raise $2,000 a year,
he said. Now that figure is up to $25,000.
''The board has been completely transformed,'' added Mr. Edelman,
president and chief executive of the Edelman public relations company.
''These guys have serious wealth and a serious interest in history. At
least it gives us the aspiration to be one of the bigger institutions in
Certainly Mr. Gilder and Mr. Lehrman have pushed the society to
think big. The $5 million Hamilton exhibition, scheduled to open on
Sept. 10, is the largest in the society's history and is intended to be
the first in a series of buzz-generating blockbusters.
''We'd like to have people lined up outside, waiting to come in,''
said Nancy Newcomb, the chairwoman.
Mr. Lehrman, who was the Republican candidate for governor of New
York in 1982, said there was ''no truth whatsoever'' to the notion that
he and Mr. Gilder would seek to dominate the historical society. Still,
he added: ''Dick and I are reformers. We are not interested in
insulating the status quo from new ideas.''
Mr. Gilder said he and Mr. Lehrman were no more powerful than other
trustees of the society, merely more experienced.
''We can't impose our ideas on them by fiat,'' he said. ''What we're
doing that maybe hasn't been done before is to maybe broaden the scope.
Americans are ready for this now. We are financial people, and we have a
nose for what the market wants.''
In its 10 years of existence, the Gilder Lehrman Institute has
created history-centered public schools and academic research centers,
sponsored lectures by historians, organized seminars and enrichment
programs and produced publications and traveling exhibitions. It has a
renowned slavery archive at Yale University and is a co-sponsor of two
of the largest awards for American history books, the Lincoln Prize
($50,000) and the Frederick Douglass Prize ($25,000).
''We are not interested in upholding any self-appointed
establishment -- on the left or on the right,'' Mr. Lehrman said. ''The
scholars we have sponsored, well, the vast majority are more on the
liberal side than on the conservative side.''
Still, several exhibitions at the historical society have been
started or overhauled at least partly at the urging of Mr. Gilder and
Mr. Lehrman. At least one has been canceled since their arrival -- an
exhibition on the Times Square centennial, one of the steps that
prompted objections by Mr. Wallace and other historians that the
society's new national focus could leave New York history
Dr. Mirrer said she canceled the show to focus on ''the needs and
space and fund-raising of this institution on our own bicentennial.''
She noted that the society has had a national component since its
founding in 1804.
''I see this as an institution that tells the story of American
history, as it has been influenced and affected by the history of New
York,'' Dr. Mirrer said. ''I would hate for anyone to think that New
York and New Yorkers would be irrelevant to whatever we do in this
A coming exhibition about slavery, however, has been recast to
reflect Mr. Lehrman's viewpoint, as expressed in an interview in the
society's journal. ' 'This was an institution supported throughout the
world, but Americans took the initiative in destroying it,'' Mr. Lehrman
said in that interview, adding that he deplored the view that ''American
history consists of one failure after another to deal with the issue of
Originally the show was intended as a modest $50,000 undertaking,
called ' 'From Bondage to Freedom,'' that focused on the realities of
slavery in New York. The society has now expanded it into a $2 million
would-be blockbuster with national scope.
''Of course we will emphasize the misery and awfulness of it,'' said
Mr. Gilder, adding that New York would still figure in the show. ''But
what's really interesting is the economic impact it had on the United
States. The profits from the slave trade -- did they finance the textile
industry, the banking industry, shipping? We want to explore this.''
Asked if the exhibition would incorporate his view of slavery, Mr.
Lehrman said, ''One of the triumphs of America was to have dealt
directly with that issue in the agonies of a civil war, and to have
passed the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.'' He added, ''We still have a
long way to go.''
The curator of the Hamilton exhibition is Richard Brookhiser, a
senior editor at the conservative National Review, who said in an
interview that ''the show is my inspiration, reflecting my vision of
That vision, as reflected in his 1999 book, ''Alexander Hamilton,
American'' (Free Press), is that Hamilton was an exemplary American, a
founding father with the capacity to ''guide and caution'' contemporary
The presidential historian Michael R. Beschloss, writing in a review
in The New York Times, said that Mr. Brookhiser's book ''brilliantly
succeeds in arguing that Hamilton deserves greater credit than he
usually gets for his brainpower, idealism, character and vision.'' Brent
Tarter, writing in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, said that Mr. Brookhiser
came close to ''hero worship'' in his appreciation of Hamilton.
Mr. Brookhiser said that the historical society show would deal
''with the darker sides and the controversial sides -- we present the
pro and the con.''
Several society staff members, who said they were afraid of being
fired if their names were printed, said their role in the Hamilton show
had been to endorse decisions already made. Although exhibitions were
once planned collaboratively, creative control of future exhibitions,
they said, is in the hands of the board, outside consultants and the
Gilder Lehrman Institute. Mr. Gilder said that ''overall
responsibility'' for the exhibition fell to James G. Basker, the
Still, Dr. Mirrer said that the staff's involvement ''has been
significant and tremendous.''
A Shift to Shrines?
Although Hamilton was an immigrant and slaves were hardly powerful,
some historians say they worry that the society's new focus is
representative of a larger shift by some museums toward history that
emphasizes leaders rather than ordinary people: minorities, women, and
immigrants, for example.
''We're seeing those things supplanted by a decision to try to tell
a grand public narrative, to create shrines where a patriotic fervor can
be cultivated,' ' said Richard Rabinowitz, president of the American
History Workshop, a Brooklyn company that helps develop museum
That style of history has a natural tie to archives like the Gilder
Lehrman holdings, said David Nasaw, a history professor at the Graduate
Center at the City University of New York.
''If you write history based only on primary documents that survive,
there is a danger of overemphasizing the role of great white men who
left such documents,'' he said. ''There has been great progress in
museum exhibitions, in large part because historians have brought a
critical eye to the presentation of history in public. I would certainly
hope that the same critical eye on our past remains a significant part
of the exhibits in the New-York Historical Society.''
Dr. Mirrer said there was no reason for concern. ''I don't see
ideology as having a role at all in future exhibitions,'' she said,
adding, ''We would not want to present anything that is devoid of
intellectual thought and critical thinking.''
CORRECTION-DATE: July 20, 2004
Because of an editing error, an article in The Arts yesterday about
changes at the New-York Historical Society referred incorrectly to the
status of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, whose
founders, Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, joined the society's
board last year and lent their collection of historical documents. While
the workers who oversee the collection have moved to the society, the
institute has not.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company The New York Times