New York Yearns For an Institution Of Historic Proportions
By Barbara Stewart
"History tends to be down there at the nerd end of things," said Ric Burns, the
director of a 12-hour documentary on New York City. Compared with, say, the
city's museums and theaters, parks and restaurants, music and dance, New York's
history has been about as popular as the high school chess club.
Lately, however, the city's history has been decidedly sought after. The first
episodes of Mr. Burns's documentary were watched on public television by 20
million people, and PBS is expecting as big an audience for the last two, which
are to be shown in a few weeks. Huge, scholarly works, like the Encyclopedia of
New York City by Kenneth T. Jackson and "Gotham: A History of New York City to
1898," by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike G. Wallace, are selling briskly. The
Metropolitan Museum of Art got into the act last fall, holding an
uncharacteristic and popular show of 19th-century furniture, jewelry, clothing
and crockery. And last spring Mr. Wallace, a professor at the City University of
New York, created the Gotham Center at the university's Graduate Center, where a
coalition of history organizations sponsors capacity-crowd forums. The center is
even planning a weeklong history conference and film series in October.
Still, for city historians a decades-long dream remains elusive: a center that
would cover the full story of New York, one that would describe the complex
threads of colonization, immigration, slavery, politics, commerce and cultural
development, offering visitors the big picture all in one place.
"There should be one storytelling place, a place that gives a narrative spine to
New York City history," said Mr. Wallace, who won the Pulitzer Prize for
"Gotham." "We've got curators of ball gowns and curators of paintings. But we
don't have a curator of New York City."
Josh Brown, director of the American History Project at the City University,
said: "At the Museum of Modern Art you get the history of modern art, a sense of
the trajectory of art through the 19th and 20th centuries. We need something like
that for history, that would give you an overview of New York history."
Until recently, though, few people cared much one way or the other. The idea that
history matters and that old New York is at least as interesting as today's New
York is a recent development, Mr. Burns said.
"Throughout most of the century there was the idea that anything new is better
than anything old," he said. People's feelings about preservation began changing
in the 1960's, he continued, after Penn Station was torn down and the Landmarks
Preservation Commission was established in response. "But it didn't become
noticeable until the 80's and 90's, with the efforts" of the commission, he said.
"Now the understanding of the importance of history is taken for granted in a way
that it absolutely wasn't 50 years ago."
The city history boom has spurred the development of several specialized museums
that explore aspects of the city, from skyscrapers to immigration. One is the
Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which was founded in 1988 in a storefront and
now has 85,000 visitors a year who climb through the tiny rooms of its Orchard
But what's still needed, historians say, is a place that would offer a single
grand view. One idea that has come up several times is a merger of two of the
largest historically minded institutions: the Museum of the City of New York and
the New-York Historical Society.
"It's the old question," said Max Page, who writes about both institutions in his
book "The Creative Destruction of Manhattan." "Why don't they merge and make us
all happy? They're duplicating a lot of what they do and are in competition."
The merger idea was first studied by the city in 1995, when the historical
society was emerging from severe financial troubles and actively looking for a
partner. The museum seemed like a good match. The society has vast,
pre-20th-century archives and a huge, eclectic collection of fine and decorative
arts, while the museum is known for its peerless theater, costume and
20th-century photography collections. Betsy Gotbaum, a former president of the
historical society, was enthusiastic about merging. So, several years ago, was
the city. But the museum was not willing, said Susan Rothschild, spokeswoman for
the Department of Cultural Affairs.
"We thought there was a lot of merit to the idea, and we still do," Ms.
Rothschild said. "But they're independent organizations, and we can't force them
Mr. Jackson, the author of the city encyclopedia and the new president of the
historical society, said a merger was not a high priority: "If there were some
way to merge those two, I'd be receptive to it. But I don't see it happening
Yet even he admits that at the moment both the society and the city museum are
second-tier institutions. "We need a world-class, cutting-edge history
institution, and we're not there yet," he said. "Our history institutions don't
rank that well. We're moving up, but we've got a long way to go. We all need a
unified voice and a stronger financial base. We need to start cooperating instead
of seeing ourselves as competitors."
Over the centuries both the Museum of the City of New York and the New-York
Historical Society became attics of a sort for affluent residents who donated
ball gowns, old paintings, furniture, china and silver.
The museum, which was founded in 1923, was initially supported by wealthy German
Jews who were not welcome at the elite historical society, which was founded in
1804, Mr. Wallace said. "They weren't descended from Colonial New Yorkers," he
added. "These were newer players. They had gazillions of dollars, but the one
area in which they were sadly deficient was pedigree. They went through this
battle with the Academy of Music and went out and formed the Metropolitan Opera."
Now the Museum of the City of New York is preparing to move from Fifth Avenue and
103rd Street to the elaborately constructed Tweed Courthouse near City Hall.
For its part, the historical society, on Central Park West at 77th Street, turned
its attention away from rich old New York after its 1995 financial crisis and
started mounting shows on subjects like Italian immigrants and Seneca Village,
the black settlement that was razed when Central Park was built in the mid-19th
century. Last November it opened the $11.3 million Luce Center for the Study of
American Culture, an exhibition and research center.
Some people, like Mr. Wallace, still hold out hope for one grand historical
institution. He said he hoped the Gotham Center would help build a coalition
among scholars, museum professionals, preservationists and history buffs. In the
meantime Mr. Jackson said that he and the museum's director, Robert R. Macdonald,
have begun discussing ways of cooperating, perhaps mounting joint exhibitions.
That of course would mark quite a change. The New-York Historical Society and the
Museum of the City of New York have been uneasy competitors for most of the
century. But that should not be too surprising. After all, as Mr. Burns said, "to
have two rival institutions" is "very New York."