19 December 2011

Renovated History

Abraham Lincoln. Photo: Michele.

Three years and $70 million later the New York Historical Society has reopened its doors and for those of you who frequented the place before the renovations, don't be surprised if you find yourself double checking the name above the door. One of the most noticeable changes is the statue of Abraham Lincoln that now greets you at the entrance (Frederick Douglass is around the corner at the 77th Street entrance). But much bigger surprises lie inside.

The once dimly lit, almost empty lobby is now bright and filled with touch screens displays and items from the society's collection. The seemingly hodgepodge of items on view include lantern slides from the 1920s and 30s (hello John Barrymore, Jean Harlow), busts of Washington and Napoleon, Keith Haring's Pop Shop ceiling, a twisted FDNY engine door from 9/11, and a horrifying pair of slave shackles made for a child. New York Story, a film narrated by Liev Schreiber (it's hard not to think you're watching an HBO special) plays in the auditorium on the largest screen in New York (73 feet wide). There is also a children's museum and restaurant, all of which should help attract more visitors.

As a history geek I didn't mind the place before all the high tech changes so I was quite pleased to enter the fourth floor and find  a reminder of the former place—masses of silver, glass, ceramics, Tiffany lamps, and other objects on display in long rows of cases. A clip from King Vidor's The Crowd playing on a small screen near the entrance was a nice touch as well.

Maude Adams. The New York Historical Society.

Of the current exhibits, "Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn" about the revolutions in America, France, and Haiti was impressive but the one I was most enchanted with was the smallest—"Beauties of the Gilded Age: Peter Marié's Miniatures of Society Women." At the end of the 19th century, Marié had miniature portraits commissioned of the women he considered to epitomize beauty. Often done from photographs, they are exquisite and gorgeous. They are also fragile (watercolour on ivory) so they can only be on view for four months in dim light. Hard to choose but I especially loved the ones of actress Maude Adams and the beautiful Anna Roosevelt, mother of Eleanor.

I don't know if I like all of the changes to the place but I'm all for more people getting introduced to history so hopefully the renovations will draw the crowds and keep the New York Historical Society in business. For more info on the new look, check out their website here.

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