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February 20, 1996

The Honorable Schuyler G. Chapin
Commissioner of Cultural Affairs
The City of New York
FAX: 212 247 4216

Dear Commissioner Chapin:

We are a group of concerned historians who applaud your effort to foster a merger between the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of the City of New York. Unfortunately, most public conversation about your initiative has cast it as a crisis intervention, narrowly focused on cost cutting. We prefer to see it as we are sure you do -- an opportunity to forge a new partnership that will be more, not less, than the sum of its parts.

Despite the valiant effort of the two museums' financially hard pressed staffs, New York has lagged behind other world cities in presenting its historical resources to citizens and tourists alike. Many member organizations of the newly formed International Symposium on City Museums -- especially those in Amsterdam, Belfast, Birmingham, Bombay, Jerusalem, London, Melbourne, Montreal and Paris -- have undertaken pathbreaking work in presenting local history to the public in a vivid and memorable way. Outpaced abroad, we have also fallen behind at home, as Atlanta, Chicago, Oakland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, Richmond, San Diego, Seattle and Washington have made great strides toward establishing interpretive history centers. The sad truth is that right now there is nowhere in our town that visitors, residents, and school children can go -- must go -- to get a sweeping overview of New York's past. While other cities cultivate their heritage as a precious -- and enormously profitable -- resource, ours languishes for want of coordinated attention.

There are, to be sure, a host of community-based and specialized institutions, with more on the way. The work of (among many others) the Brooklyn Historical Society, Richmondtown Restoration, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, South Street Seaport Museum, Museo del Barrio, the Schomburg Center, Queens Historical Society, Museum of American Financial History, Bronx Historical Society, Museum of Chinese in the Americas, Transit Museum, and the city's many historic houses and preservation districts, is a salutary sign of New Yorkers' grass roots determination to preserve and present their past. But collaboration between these groups is sorely lacking, diminishing the ability of each to maximize its potential audience.

We believe that a city-brokered partnership between the Museum of the City of New York and the New-York Historical Society -- our two biggest such institutions -- can help transform this situation, to the public's great benefit. United in a common mission, they can jointly generate the energy and resources to accomplish the following essential tasks:

1) Create a full-dress permanent exhibition that tells the history of the city in a truly comprehensive way. Such an interpretive overview, regularly upgraded, would deploy the best new scholarship, use artifacts from the combined collections, and employ the most dynamic, even dazzling museological techniques to tell its story. It should become a "must-see" stop on every tourist's itinerary, and a source of entertainment and enlightenment for every citizen.

2) Develop temporary and travelling exhibits on an ever-expanding range of subjects and issues, thus drawing in an ever-expanding set of constituencies. The two historical institutions have produced shows that explore particular neighborhoods, ethnic groups, occupations, issues, and time periods. But neither one, acting separately, has been able to generate the excitement, or publicity, or visitation levels that might well be achieved by a united effort.

3) Promote historic enterprises city-wide. No one institution can -- or should -- do everything. The conjoint museum should publicize New York's other historic museums, houses, sites, and districts; maintain a computerized touch screen listing of current exhibits and activities; perhaps even coordinate a History Bus that could transport people to sites ranging from the Morris-Jumel Mansion to Louis Armstrong's house.

4) Sustain a world class research library. The Society's collections of books, manuscripts and graphics, augmented by those of the Museum, form an essential resource for studying the city, region, and country. We must make sure that this priceless heritage is not lost to New York. Indeed access to some of this material, now difficult and costly, should be expanded and enhanced, and eventually computerized, digitized, and linked to other historical collections in the region, perhaps even the Municipal Archives.

5) Protect, display, and expand the integrated collections. We need to ensure that the institutions' artifacts are well cared for, as they are the memory markers of the metropolis. They should be made accessible to the public through exhibitions and a study center. And the collection process should become an ongoing one, a vehicle for documenting the full range of recent and contemporary life in the city, not just the distant past.

6) Organize public programming for adults: lectures and walking tours; civic forums to set contemporary issues in historical context; a Historymobile to ferry exhibitions to streets, parks and playgrounds around the city; a History on Location program to set up shows in venues around town; heritage trails like the one being established in Lower Manhattan. Connections could be made to convention and visitor oriented projects like the Big Apple Greeter program, or to Landmark Harlem's proposed Urban Cultural Park.

7) Undertake and coordinate educational programming: for youthful in-house visitors; at schools; in programs designed for teachers and their students oriented to state-mandated history curriculums. There are a great number of imaginative educational projects underway around the city, being done in a wide variety of media. These enterprises, currently isolated, could be made mutually reinforcing.

Turning such a bold and exciting vision into reality will require going beyond a narrow focus on financial exigencies. Yes, we need to achieve efficiencies, but in the long run downsizing produces only diminishing returns. It will also require the support of New Yorkers from many walks of life. The revitalization of public history is too big to leave entirely to the overburdened staffs of the two key institutions. To be successful it must embrace the scholarly community, and we think the city's historians must be far more fully engaged than they have been in the past (there are none on staff at either establishment). The effort must also enlist the community of curators, librarians and archivists; the city's political, economic, and cultural leadership; experts in private and public sector heritage tourism and heritage-based economic development; the print and electronic media; preservationists; and concerned communities of every imaginable variety.

We call on you, as the city's cultural point person, to convene a broad based planning group to tackle New York's historic future. Many people have a stake in a successful outcome for the proposed merger. In an earlier crisis (as you can see from the attached petition) hundreds of scholars, writers, architects, filmmakers, educators, preservationists, lawyers, publishers, curators, librarians, artists, business and political leaders rallied to keep history alive. That constituency can be mobilized again to support your initiative.

We would like to meet with you in the near future to discuss these matters. We will call you soon to find out if and when this would be convenient.

Professor of History at New York University and author of A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New York (1971); Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (1986); and The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in Anglo-America (forthcoming). She is a Fellow of the Society of American Historians and has held research fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

Professor of History at Columbia, author of books, articles, and essays on twentieth-century American history, including Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (winner of the 1983 National Book Award), The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War, and The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People. He contributes frequently to such publications as the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review and Magazine, and the Times Literary Supplement.

Professor of History at Brooklyn College, teaches New York City history, co-author of two volume History of New York City (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster), recipient National Endowment for Humanities Fellowship.

Gouverneur Morris Professor of History at Columbia University and the author most recently of The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. His first book, From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765, received the
Bancroft Prize in American History.

Urban historian, lecturer on New York City history at Yale University, Bank Street College, Sarah Lawrence College. Author Seeing New York (1995).

Adjunct Associate Professor, Columbia University School of Architecture. Author of numerous works on the architecture and development of the city, including the recent Guide to New York City Landmarks and a forthcoming study of Morningside Heights; curator of an exhibit on New York architecture. President, New York Chapter Society of Architectural Historians, 1988-92; State Council on the Arts panelist, 1987-89; 1993-95.

DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia, author of numerous books on 19th century American history, including Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, winner of the Bancroft Prize, Parkman Prize, LA Times Book Award and others; named Scholar of the Year by the NY Council for the Humanities in 1995; was president of the Organization of American Historians, 1994-95.

Jacques Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences and Chairman of the Department of History at Columbia University. He is the editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City, which recently won a Critics' Choice Award as one of the most acclaimed books of 1995, and he is the author of Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, which won both the Bancroft and the Francis Parkman Prizes. He is a trustee of the South Street Seaport Museum and the New-York Historical Society.

Professor of American and American Urban History at The City University of New York Graduate center; author of several books on the history of New York, including Fiorello H. La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York; director of ten National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminars; holder of Rockefeller, NEH and other research fellowships; directing Ph.D. research on NYC history.

Executive Officer, Doctoral History Program, CUNY Graduate Center, author of books on urban education, youth, and culture, including Going Out, named by Washington Post as one of ten best books of the year; completing a biography of William Randolph Hearst.

Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, teaching New York City History. Co Author of forthcoming two volume History of New York City from Simon & Schuster. Consultant to many history museums, and author of collection of essays on popular presentations of the past, Mickey Mouse History, and Other Essays on American Memory. Fellowships from National Endowment for Humanities and American Council of Learned Societies.

Adjunct Associate Professor of Urban Studies, Columbia University, School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; author of numerous articles and the recent Form Follows Finance; Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago; guest curator of exhibitions on architecture and urbanism; founder and curator, The Skyscraper Museum (first exhibition to open Fall 1996).


Professor of History and Women's Studies at Rutgers University. She has published several books and articles on immigration history, and is the recipient of the American Historical Association's Marraro Prize. She has received major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. For almost a decade she served as a member of the U.S. Department of the Interior's special history advisory commission on Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty National Monument Museums. She also serves on advisory boards for the South Street Seaport Museum and the Tenement Museum.


LESLEY HERRMANN (Executive Director, Gilder Lehrman Institute)