REPUBLICANS CLEAN HOUSE AT NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY
September 29, 2004 - Artnet News
The façade of the New-York Historical Society building
on Central Park West is wrapped with a
huge multicolored replica of a $10 bill -- a symbol that
seems appropriate to the takeover of the august institution
by two deep-pocketed Republican trustees. Since history nuts
Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman seized control of the
society last summer [see
"Artnet News," June 24, 2004], they have gutted
the professional staff and dumbed-down the exhibition program.
Unceremoniously out are ceo Rick Beard, who previously headed
the Atlanta History Center; Historical Society museum director
Jan Ramirez; senior projects historian Steven Jaffe, who formerly
was curator at the South Street Seaport Museum; and public
information director Travis Stewart.
The much ballyhooed current exhibition -- "Alexander
Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America," Sept. 10,
2004-Feb. 28, 2005, for which the museum building was plastered
with the aforementioned giant sawbuck -- could hardly have
cost almost $6 million, as widely (if unofficially) advertised.
The show consists of three galleries: an orientation space
lined with benches, hung with a score of portraits of Hamilton's
peers (including Dolley Madison) and featuring a brief audiovisual
introduction to Hamilton's ideas; a long high-tech gallery
containing the actual historical documents in a series of
fancy vitrines, along with a baffling series of five newsreel-type
projections that have little to do with Hamilton himself;
and finally a confusing timeline printed on the wall of a
long hallway. And in the lobby is a slightly comical, contemporary
(dated 2004) pair of bronze figures of a dueling Hamilton
and Aaron Burr.
On a recent Saturday, the show was well-attended if not crowded,
so hopes that paying visitors to "Hamilton" -- beloved
by conservatives as the father of high finance -- might add
to museum's coffers don't seem entirely unrealistic. As for
the exhibition itself, its commentary is pitched alarmingly
low, reminiscent of junior high school social studies class.
The design of the main gallery is perplexing, with many documents
displayed at knee level, so the sight of visitors leaning
over like feeding storks is a common one. What's more, Hamilton
was the founder of a newspaper that was the ancestor of the
current New York Post, whose obnoxious presence is felt throughout
the show, in the timeline as well as the advertising-filled
free handout, which is designed as a mock copy of the tabloid.
In a recent New York Times story, new Historical Society
director Louise Mirrer suggested that a "dusted-off"
museum would include an exhibition of the institution's great
collection of paintings by John James Audubon. This comment
was greeted derisively by one former staffer. "We just
did a show in 1997 or so," said the source. "There
was a fine catalogue, a national tour -- and abysmal attendance
at the museum." Since the society was reopened in 1995
(after nearly going bankrupt), its curators had resorted to
the Audubon holdings more than once to fill an unbudgeted
exhibition slot -- "Birds of Autumn," "Birds
of Central Park" and the like. "Anytime you see
Audubons at the New-York Historical Society," said the
source, "it's a sign of trouble!
"Otherwise, the society is one of New York's best-kept
secrets. The open-stack storage of the Henry Luce III Center
on the fourth floor is a marvel, and the large and airy Beaux-Arts
library is simply beautiful. The Luman Reed Picture Gallery
is full of quaint 19th-century masterpieces. Among the other
exhibitions on hand is a selection of 9/11artifacts and, in
the basement, "Around Town Underground: Prints from the
Collection of Dave and Reba Williams," a group of 66
works that show how little life in the subway has changed
in the last 60 years.
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