The Museum of the City of New York's "NY at its Core" Exhibit

Reviewed by Arinn Amer

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How do you capture the true character of New York City? The Museum of the City of New York has provided a compelling answer with its new permanent exhibition, New York at its Core: you don’t. Despite the $10 million exhibit’s playful name, it is anything but essentializing, presenting a multiplicity of New Yorks in a range of engaging styles, rather than one core view of the city. Three galleries cover New York’s origins as a port city in its first three centuries, its rise to international prominence in its fourth, and its unresolved future ahead, each in its own distinct curatorial style. It’s a strategy as fitting for a museum serving a diverse public audience as it for a city famous for its variety and self-reinvention. The exhibition’s fine artifactual treasures and technologically, pedagogically innovative displays introduce New York’s many histories, while its periodization insists that ultimately, those histories continue out on Fifth Avenue with the sunstruck visitors.

The animated map by the entrance of Port City (1609-1898) reminds viewers how impossibly open and bucolic New York has been, an effect reinforced by the historical landscapes projected on the far wall, which fade slowly into Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao’s contemporary photographs of the same sites. Tracking changes to the exhibition’s key themes of money, diversity, density, and creativity, the map is an impressive resource. I caught the diversity sequence, a proud but never sugar-coated commemoration of New York’s long multi-ethnic and -religious history. Glass cases of artifacts flank the gallery: a leather fire bucket and cross-section of a wooden plumbing pipe tell of previous ways of living, a shoe worn to Washington’s inaugural ball offers up some literal Founders chic. The Museum has taken an education-centered approach to New York at Its Core, and it’s easy to imagine tour guides making excellent use of evocative objects like the Tweed-era glass globe ballot box that perfectly exemplifies contemporary concerns about transparency and democracy. The periodized displays form a timeline of New York’s many transformations, from Lenape paradise to Dutch village, federal seat to immigrant hub. Icons by the wall text invite visitors who haven’t already found themselves intrigued to learn more at touchscreens in the center of the room, where they can encounter real historical New Yorkers and learn how they shaped and were shaped by each period. There are even critters among the seventy-two copiously researched profiles visitors can swipe throughout the exhibition, like a pig whose hotly contested right to roam the streets provides openings into a host of historical and urban issues. The serenity of the gallery is perfectly suited to discovering the intimate portraits at the human-scale totems, even if the early Americanist in me missed a bit of hustle and bustle.

Across the lobby in World City (1898-2012), New York is frenetic, cacophonous, dizzying. Jazz, punk, and hip-hop all fill the gallery in turn, accompanying the moving images projected onto layered translucent screens that hang in the center of the gallery to reveal ways New Yorkers have worked in, moved through, and sought respite from the city. An animated map by the entrance continues to situate and surprise with visualizations of the key themes, but elsewhere there’s a distinct break with the curatorial style of Port City. Here, visitors can tap historical and present-day figures parading in silhouette across the panoramic touchscreen on the far wall to learn more about their stories, an interface that’s at once less intuitive and more suggestive of the movement and tempo of urban life. Vertical display cases protrude from the walls to create period nodes that present opposing interpretations of those years. Challenge and opportunity continually commingle: 1929-1941 bring Depression-era poverty alongside New Deal development, 1970-1980 bring fiscal crisis and civil unrest with creative renaissance, 2001-2012 bring safety with sterility. Again, the teaching potential is remarkable. An abundance of interplaying artifacts and embedded touchscreens with supplementary materials leave viewers with many options to explore and many connections to formulate. Pairings like the abstract expressionist trio of paintcan and brush used by Jackson Pollock alongside a Vogue cover depicting a woman modeling eveningwear in front of his painting, or a towel from the gay Continental Baths displayed just a few cases down from a towel from a Korean Seafood Retailers Association picnic create satisfying moments of layered resonance in a gallery as brimming and disparate as New York itself.

At the Future City Lab, visitors leave this profusion behind to imagine the city’s future, returning to an openness that recalls the serenity and promise of Port City. The What If Table allows visitors to pose and answer questions (what if we all lived in treehouses?), alongside those of experts (what if the subway didn’t run all night?). It’s a beautifully executed talkback feature, full of careful details like the soft graphite pencils that make handwritten additions look bold. Educational gaming at its best invites visitors to dream up their own designs for parks, buildings, and roads as they discover the limitations real urban planners face and are forced to negotiate delicate balances between demands such as cost and sustainability. Users can publish their designs and walk through them with the aid of special effects, but I was sufficiently delighted at the decks, testing what might happen if I installed a kayak lane in a busy Bed-Stuy street. A final animated map, this one mammoth in size, presents data on the cycling themes of economic opportunity, inclusivity, housing, transportation, and climate change. It tells stories of ecological danger and triumph, rising sea levels and purified air. All of the information used is available to the public for dreaming and scheming, accessible at a computer sitting in the corner. Watching the data flash up on the display, the music of video artist Neil Goldberg’s interviews with brassy New Yorkers in my ears, I couldn’t help but marvel at the many cities this place where we live and work and strive has been, is, and will be.

New York, at its core, is never finally done becoming.

Arinn Amer is a doctoral fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is interested in culture and violence in eighteenth century America, and in imaginative methods for narrating history.