Thursday, November 17, 2011

NY Historical Society: 77th St and Central Park West

Side Entrance with Statue of Frederick Douglass
Just a block or so south of the American Museum of Natural History is the New York Historical Society, with its own wonderful collection of paintings, home furnishings, memorabilia, and historical artifacts. It has been closed for renovation for the past year or so, but was re-opened last week.

I had never been there before today, and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.  I had mistakenly assumed this would have men's club style (like the Explorers Club), but it was wide open, bright, and exhibited amazing collections in traditional museum style, a kind of salon style, as well as a warehouse style (see Tiffany lamps displayed/stored at left).  To get more out of the visit, I downloaded the free audio guide from iTunes (which was helpful and enriching if a little cumbersome without an order or accompanying map), but if you are less technologically inclined there are free daily guided hour-long tours (check for times on level one at admission).

The museum has an extensive painting collection that rotates and has some great recognizable portraits of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, miniatures on ivory of New York society women, and Hudson River scenes that highlight NYC's natural beauty.

There are also one-of-a-kind historical artifacts like George Washington's cot from the Revolutionary War (believed to have been the one he slept in at Valley Forge) and the ceramic jug which was a gift to Thomas Nast (whose cartoons in Harper's Weekly blasted and brought into public light the corruption of Tammany Hall) decorated with a depiction of snake-bodied William S. "Boss" Tweed (with beard and without glasses) and his corrupt political gang, some diving in headfirst into the "pot of money and power" (see right). 

There are also rare historic pieces like the fancy Engish-made Beekman family coach from 1766 (one of only 3 that survive from the period), the one-of-two ladies' dressing tables built in New York of this design in the Federal style after the American Revolution,  and the slavery chains (see the tragically child-sized shackles at left).

Perhaps because of my earlier visits to Hamilton Grange and the Morris-Jumel Mansion, I thought the highlight of all of the artifacts were the dueling pistols used by Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton (see right) when Alexander Hamilton was killed.

My favorite part of the museum was the 18 minute multimedia film that relates the story of New York City and its rise to prominence from what was once considered a far-away colonial outpost.  From the dredging of the Erie Canal through the American Revolution and the influx of immigrants and the political and economic upheavals centered around New York, the film weaves an amazingly coherent story.  Obviously it is a summary, but it relates history in a meaningful and elegant way without being overly dramatic (yes, they cover recent events like 9/11 poignantly but without belaboring the details; I understand the society is also collecting artifacts from "Occupy Wall Street" in case it becomes a historical phenomenon or movement).  I would recommend this film to all NYC residents and visitors--really, that is how good it is. 

If you haven't been to the New York Historical Society, run, don't walk, to spend an afternoon there.  ASIDE: If you have kids, set aside some time to visit the lower level children's history museum, which has lots of educational and interactive exhibits.

No comments:

Post a Comment