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BUSINESS-CLASS HERO

Across the way, running down the gallery's right-hand wall, are six glassed-in cabinets filled with artifacts - objects, paintings, documents, drawings, - pertaining to Hamilton's life. These, too, are arranged thematically: IMMIGRANT / SOLDIER / LAWMAKER / ECONOMIST / ACTIVIST / VISIONARY. They are meant to represent the Past and to lay out Hamilton's Vision. As the N-YHS web site explains, "Cases on the righthand wall display objects - a musket, money, slave shackles - illustrating his concepts."

Between Past and Present, laid out on individual platforms running down the center of the hall, are thirteen documents, most written by Hamilton. These, presumably, are the words by which Modern America was Made flesh.

It's not easy to see these words, or much of anything else, as the entire gallery has been deliberately kept murky, partly to preserve delicate documents, partly because the design prioritizes the video screens, making the eighteenth century material even harder to see. (The screens' oscillating intensity - they glow more brightly when the film snippets cycle on - further disorients would-be readers, though the moments of gloom-lightening brightness do provide the best opportunities for maneuvering about the sepulcher.)

It's hard to fathom why the docu-centric underwriters acquiesced in sacrificing the legibility of prized and supposedly featured manuscripts. Unless, perhaps, the documents aren't meant to be read at all - reviewers have been dumbfounded by the absence of transcriptions - but rather to serve as relics of the Hero. Could the real point of the little altars and the somber atmosphere be to inculcate an appropriately reverential attitude? That may be - it's certainly in keeping with the hagiographical quality of the entire exercise - but I think an examination of the show's depiction of the Past, and its rendition of the Present, will afford a better explanation of why the Then has been subordinated to the Now.


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Extracting Hamilton's Vision from the six cases of the Past is impeded by more than dim wattage. The artifacts in each cabinet are numbered from left to right. But the natural pedestrian flow runs down the long wall from right to left. Attentive visitors leapfrog each case from right to left and then double back, only to collide head on with guests plowing straight ahead, either because they don't care about proceeding in proper order, or at least as likely, because they haven't been able read the numbered captions. These have been placed a scant two feet above the floor, a serious burden for those with bad eyes or bad backs. "The sight of visitors leaning over like feeding storks is a common one," one reviewer has noted; I've spotted gamely determined attendees crouching, kneeling, even sitting in an effort to make out the text.

Fledgling curators usually get inoculated against such elementary errors of craft in Museology 101. They also get warned off jumbling together authentic period pieces with materials produced a hundred or more years after the events they depict, as is done here routinely. 18th century artifacts mingle promiscuously with 19th or 20th century depictions fashioned during centennial celebrations or Colonial Revivals. Museums usually treat such items as illustrative of the temper of the times in which they were created, rather than evidence about the period under examination.

Whatever their provenance, the objects are presented virtually without context, apart from wisps of text, and in a few instances an Acoustiguide elaboration. It's assumed they can speak for themselves. This is all the more frustrating as they are burdened not only with evoking Hamilton's life but elucidating his "concepts," and how much "concept" can an unexplicated musket convey? Nor do the cases provide a narrative thread to string the isolated pieces together, weaving them into a larger story; nor are the cases connected one to the other. Rothstein refers in his review to "the sheer accumulation of artifacts and portraits" as being one of the exhibit's few achievements, but what we really have here is a "mere" accumulation, scattered bits of evidence in search of an argument.

These sins of omission, however, are decidedly preferable to the sins of commission that can occur when curatorial interventions do take place, of which I'll give just one example.

The text and Acoustiguide declare that Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury "found a way to pay off America's lingering war debts" - and to pay them "fairly" [my emphasis] - over the "bitter objections of less progressive opponents." By the time he retired in 1795, it's claimed, Hamilton had brought the nation "into the modern financial era"; forestalled the possibility of its becoming a "banana republic"; and left it "poised to become a major financial power." Setting aside the final preposterous assertion - under any reasonable construction of "poised" it's off by roughly a century - this package of propositions, presented as self-evident truths, coolly finesses the hottest debate of the 1790s, one that nearly tore the fledgling Republic apart.


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