Russell Shorto

The Future of the Past

“To take no sides in history would be as false as to take no sides in life,” the historian Barbara W. Tuchman once wrote. If that applies to the written word, it is just as true for the presentation of history in museums. Museums can’t be objective because history isn’t. To be meaningful, a museum needs a slant. On the other hand, a museum dedicated to the history of a place is supposed to be broadly representative. So there’s the contradiction: if a museum is doing its job, you might say, it’s ticking somebody off.

By that yardstick, the custodians of three of the main museums devoted to New York history are doing a terrific job. At receptions, in the newspaper, at meetings of their boards, the future of New York’s past is being discussed in strident terms. The heightened political climate this fall is adding effervescence. And the backdrop and catalyst is the event of three years ago that refocused New York in the eyes of the world.

For a long while, people have lamented a lack in New York. Go to London, Sydney, Amsterdam, Chicago, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and you’ll find a museum devoted to that city’s past. It’s a context stop for any visitor, resident or student that, in an hour or two, sets the whos, hows and whys of the place – coal, convicts, spices, hogs, soldiers, princes – in a chronological and topical landscape. An urban history museum can provide a forum for debating current problems by setting them in earlier contexts. It can be a tool for city schools. It can be a focal point and a benchmark, something to which residents can point and say, “This is who we are.”

Perhaps typically, New York doesn’t have one museum to tell its story: it has several, plus dozens of more specialized history centers. And while three – the New-York Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York and the South Street Seaport Museum – have overlapping missions and collections, according to many observers this is a case where more is less. Given that their subject is the brassiest, mightiest, most improbable and consequential city in the country if not the world, attendance is pitiable. Where the American Museum of Natural History pulls in three million visitors a year, the Historical Society, sitting grandly right beside it on Central Park West, gets fewer than 150,000. As Richard Gilder, one trustee, lamented, “You’d think that many people would get lost wandering in from next door.”

Cyclically over the last couple of decades, cries of “merger” have risen to a crest, then crashed in meetings that went nowhere. But questions about how best to channel the city’s history are more pressing than ever. Three years after the fact, it is becoming clear that the attacks of Sept. 11 did not diminish the attractiveness of New York, and may in fact have burnished it.

Nearly 38 million people visited the city last year, a record high and a 7 percent increase over the previous year, making it the second most visited destination in the country (behind Orlando, the home of Disney World, and ahead of Las Vegas). And history is a part of that, as suggested by the explosion of books about the city’s past, the growth in the walking tour industry and the popularity of Ric Burns’s documentary series on the subject.

Given that interest, and given the chronically straitened finances of each of these three museums and the fact that the city is perennially forced to rescue one or another from the fiscal brink, is it time again to ask the merger question? Would it be more cost effective to pool resources? Could a single entity devoted to presenting New York’s history become a must-visit destination in a way that none of these institutions are? And would a merged institution be a fitting response to the World Trade Center attack, one grand place that tells the whole story of New York, from Dutch port to first national capital to lower-case world trade center?

“Of course there should be one museum for all of New York history,” said Betsy Gotbaum, New York’s public advocate, who ran the Historical Society from 1994 to 2001. Of similar mind is Mike Wallace, co-author of “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898,” who has labored in this regard more than anyone through the Gotham Center for New York History, the scholarly and education organization he founded in 2000. “It’s criminal that we don’t, as they say, capitalize on our history assets,” he said.

But an attempt to place a coalition of New York history institutions at the future World Trade Center site failed, and there is no merger in the offing. The grande dame of the three institutions, the Historical Society, has the prestige, attitude and location to take the lead role in refocusing the city’s self-image, but many people think that as a museum it has also been, historically, the lamest.

One problem is the Historical Society has always been burdened by its collection, the base of which is the leavings of generations of the city’s wealthy residents: How do you make a mission out of antique silverware? The institution hit bottom in 1993 when, out of funds, it closed its doors; it was subsequently given CPR and limped along for the next decade.

Meanwhile, in 2002 the grand plan of the Museum of the City of New York to vacate its undervisited outpost at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue and move into the Tweed Courthouse in Lower Manhattan was scotched by the change in City Hall. Where Mayor Giuliani had promised the ornate building to the museum, which then spent years rebuilding its endowment in anticipation of the move, Mayor Bloomberg promptly axed the plan shortly after he took office; the Department of Education later moved into the building. In response, the museum’s president, Robert Macdonald, resigned, and the place was in left in chaos.

The South Street Seaport, which over the last 37 years has built a unique home for itself on a historic piece of Lower Manhattan waterfront, has a more specialized focus: the history of the port of New York. While it has collections of artifacts, its most attention-grabbing holdings are its nine historic ships.

The museum recently completed a $20 million renovation of its Schermerhorn Row home, but the attacks of Sept. 11 caused a 40 percent drop in visitors. People have started coming back, but the sudden layoff in June of its waterfront curator and several other officials signaled serious trouble. Former staff members are whispering of ships rotting in the water and financial mismanagement. Lawrence Huntington, chairman of the museum’s board, acknowledges “disorderly finances” in the recent past, but insists the museum is on a new footing.

So those are three fairly sorry stories. And yet, change is afoot. Most dramatic is the controversial rejuvenation of the Historical Society. The story that has percolated in New York’s history circles and beyond is of a “right-wing takeover” of its board of trustees by Mr. Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, businessmen with big-time conservative associations. (Mr. Gilder is former chairman of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative policy group; Mr. Lehrman has served on the boards of the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.) The two joined the board last year and brought with them new energy, great gobs of cash and their important collection of historical documents.

Some in New York history circles are convinced that the museum will now look at history through neocon glasses. Others, however, note that the two men have supported a variety of history projects without the taint of bias. For his part, Mr. Gilder insisted that his motivation is a passion for history. “We want people to be excited about American history,” he said.

The beginning of the new era at the Historical Society came two days ago, with the opening of the much-publicized Alexander Hamilton exhibit. At $5 million ($2 million directly from Mr. Gilder and Mr. Lehrman), its price tag is 10 times that of anything the museum has ever mounted, and it heralds the Historical Society’s newly refashioned mission: to focus not on New York history but on national history as seen through the prism of New York.

Portending the city’s immigrant tradition, Hamilton was born in the Caribbean and emigrated to New York, which was his home as he fought in the Revolution, served in Washington’s cabinet and founded the Bank of New York and the American financial system. For too long, the exhibit in effect argues, America’s early history has been dominated by the founding fathers of Virginia and New England. Hamilton represents New York’s claim to be in that front rank.

Some historians fear that the new national emphasis means that the Historical Society intends to back away from any focus on New York, and thus they consider the new direction a betrayal of the city.

But if carried through as advertised, the new focus could be exactly what the city needs. The idea is to leverage the institution’s pedigree and seize the historical moment – the post-Sept. 11 focus on New York – to elevate both the Historical Society and its city. In doing so, the Historical Society is ceding the “five boroughs” story to the Museum of the City of New York, which allows for a complementary rather than a competing relationship.

“I think New York is very much advantaged by having a museum that focuses on the history of the city,” said Louise Mirrer, the new president of the Historical Society, referring to the Museum of the City of New York. “But, and I’m going to sound arrogant here as a New Yorker, New York occupies a privileged place in American history, and not to have in the forefront of its consciousness that specialness would shortchange visitors and residents.”

If the rest of the country is unaware of that specialness, New York has only itself to blame. The same triangle of real estate in Lower Manhattan on which the World Trade Center rose and which has long served as the nexus of global finance was the home of the original American melting pot and the first American Congress. Lower Manhattan alone could lay claim to the title of birthplace of America. New York has never donned that mantle, but having a significant museum take on the New York-as-America mission would be a step in that direction.

It remains to be seen whether the Historical Society will do that, or whether it will become, as some fear, a conduit for a conservative, Great Men approach to history. The Hamilton show is inescapably in the Great Men tradition, focusing on a leader rather than on-the-ground stuff like gentrification, race, immigrant stories, poverty, AIDS.

This, some historians feel, is where the political fault lines run. “There’s politics in picking subjects and presentational styles,” Dr. Wallace said. “It’s in your silences as well as your emphases, your focus on some parts of the populace and not others, your opting for boosterish affirmation or critical but sympathetic understanding.”

But Dr. Mirrer maintains that the Historical Society will integrate the two approaches; she is especially keen on a planned blockbuster on slavery that will be built around the logbook of a New York-based slave ship and the story of a girl who sailed on it.

This particular struggle has much to do with the self-image of the Historical Society, whose trustees want it to become broader in scope and at the same time remain traditional and stately. The other two history institutions, meanwhile, have taken a more on-the-ground approach. The Museum of the City of New York has a vigorous new president – Susan Henshaw Jones, formerly the head of the National Building Museum in Washington – who recently won a $13.9 million grant from the city for improvements. Far from trying to pretend it isn’t in East Harlem, the museum has mounted exhibits on the neighborhood, and Ms. Jones has instituted a program of free admission for neighborhood residents.

More substantively, the museum is planning an expansion scheduled to be completed by 2010, and as part of it, Ms. Jones wants to create something that one of the history museums should have had long ago: a permanent exhibit devoted to the whole history of New York. Martin McLaughlin, a trustee, said the decision by the Historical Society to go national helped the Museum of the City of New York recommit itself to local outreach and to telling the story of the five boroughs.

For all its current troubles, the South Street Seaport has an even greater community presence and a sense of local mission. Its historic buildings and ships may obscure the fact that it has, over the 19 years that Peter Neill was its president (he resigned in June but remains a museum official), reached the point where it devotes one-third of its budget to work in the city’s schools.

It co-founded the New York Harbor School, an alternative high school in Bushwick. It is the lead institution in the High School for History and Communication, which just opened on the Lower East Side, where the mission is to weave history into every part of the curriculum. It sponsors educational sailing programs for the disabled. “That connects us with the community in a way that makes us relevant beyond the value of heirlooms in the attic,” Mr. Neill said.

All of which is to say that if taking sides is what history ought to do, then in this case three sides are probably better than one. A single monolithic history center might inevitably be seen as a politburo, molding history according to the whims of its donors. Different institutions mean a mix of methods. Let yourself dream a happy dream in which the lofty New-York Historical Society sits grandly on Central Park, unfurling big shows about the big New York, while the Museum of the City of New York does the boroughs with gusto and the Seaport sails into the schools.

It requires money, of course, which means having the government and others see New York’s history not as a foster child but as a central resource that binds the city and pays back in all kinds of ways. It also requires coordination and marketing. Focusing on three museums is only a conceit. There are dozens of smaller, specialty history centers in the city, and some of them – the Tenement Museum, the New York City Police Museum, Federal Hall, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, and others – used post-Sept. 11 funds to form a coalition, and are marketing themselves as the Museums of Lower Manhattan.

“What we came to realize was that all of our different stories are told best by their individual museums, and what’s really needed is to market the idea of New York history,” said Carol Willis, founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum. “You don’t have to streamline or consolidate. You have to communicate.”


About the Author

  I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I have three children (Anna, Eva and Anthony) and three step-children (Reinier, Hector and Benjamin).  I write books of narrative history; I believe history is most meaningful to us when it manifests itself through individuals in conflict. My books have been published in fourteen languages and have won numerous awards.  I am senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. My interests include the past, the present and the future, not necessarily in that order.  

photo by Keke Keukelaar