By Clint Brownfield
If you’ve never visited the New-York Historical Society at 77th Street and Central Park West, or if you haven’t visited it recently, then it’s time to experience firsthand one of New York’s most visitor-friendly cultural institutions. This is not your grandfather’s historical society…
The Society was formed in 1804 as our city’s oldest museum and its present building was opened to the public in 1908. Two wings were added in 1938 and represented the last example of Beaux-Arts architecture completed in the city and the entire country.
Today, you will have the unique experience of entering through the main doors on Central Park West and walking under an entirely preserved Keith Haring ceiling mural. It’s juxtaposed with a Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington, who was sworn in as the first U. S. President right here in New York City in April 1789, on the balcony of Federal Hall. These are just two of the items that adorn the first floor and pave the way for the treasures that await visitors on the museum’s four floors, which offer spectacular permanent and temporary exhibitions.
This past spring the building’s fourth floor was reopened to the public after a total renovation. Before the renovation, art handlers packed and moved thousands of collection items. Now, more than 1,200 objects are on view. The North Gallery now features items rarely seen before—a reimagined installation of historic treasures from the museum’s permanent collection, which tells the American story through the lens of New York. The South Wing is now the Center for Women’s History, the first and only such space in a major museum in the country devoted to women’s history. In between these wings is a newly reconfigured two-story space that displays the Society’s unparalleled collection of Tiffany lamps.
According to the museum’s director, Margi Hofer, it was the Tiffany lamp collection that inspired the creation of the museum’s Center for Women’s History; it opened to the public earlier this year with the exhibition Saving Washington, which focused on Dolley Madison’s White House. The Center’s second and current special exhibit, The Duchess of Carnegie Hall: Photographs by Editta Sherman occupies the space and runs through October 15, 2017. Sherman was a longtime resident in one of the famed studios within the walls of Carnegie Hall where she made her living as one of the city’s preeminent portrait photographers. This exhibit features selected paintings representing a virtual who’s who of the 20th century’s most famous people.
Ms. Hofer explained that in 2006 when the museum was preparing an exhibition of its Tiffany lamp collection, curators discovered the correspondence of Tiffany designer Clara Driscoll, whose letters revealed that women created many of Tiffany’s lamps. They called themselves “Tiffany Girls” and worked under the guidance of Clara Driscoll who was head of the Tiffany Studios Women’s Glass Cutting Department in New York City. Using patterns created from the original designs—some of which are featured in the Museum’s collection and are on view in the newly redesigned space, these talented, hardworking women selected and cut the glass for the famous lamps. Driscoll designed the majority of Tiffany Studios’ nature-themed shades, including the Wisteria, Dragonfly, Daffodil, and Peony. The Tiffany Lamps are on permanent display.
According to Hofer, the time between the idea for an exhibition and its opening to the public can span a few months to several years. A good example is a recent exhibit, Tattooed New York, which explored New York’s 300-year history of inked body art. It took just 18 months to develop. We told you this wasn’t your grandfather’s historical society.
For more information about The New-York Historical Society, its exhibitions and programs, visit nyhistory.org.
Hotbed (November 2017 – March 2018)
Hotbed explores the vibrant political and artistic scene of Greenwich Village in the early 20th century, where men and women joined forces across the boundaries of class and race to fight for a better world. At the heart of the downtown radicals’ crusade lay women’s rights: to control their bodies, to do meaningful work, and above all, to vote. Immersive installations and more than 100 artifacts and images—drawn from New-York Historical’s archives and several private collections—bring to life the bohemian scene and its energetic activist spirit.
Walk This Way: Footwear From The Stuart Weitzman Collection Of Historic Shoes (April – October 2018)
Shoes in recent years have culturally transcended their utilitarian purpose of becoming an object of desire and deliberation, calling up abstract considerations—like the freighted meanings of femininity, power, domination, and aspiration—for both women and men alike. Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes highlights examples from the shoe designer’s extensive private collection, assembled over three decades. The exhibition will tell the story of the shoe with more than 60 pairs on view. The exhibition will explore larger trends in American economic history, from industrialization to the rise of consumer culture, with a focus on women’s contributions as makers, designers, and entrepreneurs.
Clint Brownfield is a travel, food and beverage writer and has reported from all seven continents, more than 100 countries and 45 states. He is based in New York City—his favorite destination in the world.