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BUSINESS-CLASS HERO


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I'll begin at the end, as does Rothstein, with the specially-commissioned dueling bronzes, one of Hamilton, one of Aaron Burr. (Awkwardly placed, they confront visitors on entering, though they're supposedly the denouement). I agree that the statues are a highlight - not because they inject a bit of (badly needed) drama, but because they're life sized (roughly 5' 7"), and because they're placed on the floor, not perched on pedestals. One can peer over the combatants' respective shoulders to check the site lines of their respective pistols. This endearingly human scale is the more welcome as it provides a blessed relief from the outsized giantism - and pedestalization - that dominates everything else in the exhibit.

Starting with the immense, block-long ten dollar bill blanketing the entire Central Park West facade of the N-YHS building. When I first heard this was in the works, it sounded like a wonderfully whimsical marketing device, an encouragingly Barnumesque bit of barkerism. But in the event, the gargantuan head and gigantic logo ("The Man who Made Modern America") proved oppressively in tune with the exhibit within: a hagiographical glorification of Hamilton as Hero.

Hamilton is a significant figure in American history, and eminently deserving of an exhibition, but "Modern America" did not spring from his forehead. There's a more modest case to be made for his role in the development of key U.S. financial and political institutions - I admire some of Hamilton's accomplishments - but outsized claims like these are deeply anachronistic. Worse, to hammer them home, the Gilder-Lehrmanites have summoned from the dead a 1950s-style filiopietistic museology that historians and curators interred long ago.

The initial gallery - entitled His World - gets us off to a problematic start. Two huge screens (one blazoned non-stop with the History Channel's logo) display dueling quotations from rival Founders - chiefly Hamilton and Washington versus Jefferson and Adams. The juxtaposition of texts suggests that Hamilton was a pioneering and progressive American (albeit prey to a couple of humanizing peccadilloes) while his contemporary opponents were racist hypocrites and "uncomprehending" men of limited vision; foils for the Hero. This battle of blurbs - Adams excoriates Hamilton's character, Washington is wheeled in to defend him - is Founding Fatherology at its worst, with history - reduced to biography - presented as a zero sum catfight. Maybe shout-TV was the model here; it's equally un-illuminating about the issues at hand.

An introductory gallery might more profitably have claimed that Hamilton has been unjustly ignored by history, and invited the audience to participate in a reevaluation. But this would have required a full and honest engagement with Hamilton's projects, and an equally thorough explanation of why so many of his contemporaries (and subsequent generations), rightly or wrongly, objected to them. This, the show is deeply reluctant to do.

A secondary problem with His World is how circumscribed that world appears to be. Two of the gallery walls are covered by 32 portraits of Hamilton's contemporaries, some famous, most long forgotten (Egbert Benson, Ambrose Spencer, et. al.); each canvas is accompanied by the merest snippet of information about who the subject is and how he or she relates to Hamilton. This reticence might have been acceptable if the massed oils served as a de facto playbill, introducing the cast of characters of a forthcoming drama; but no drama ensues, and most are never seen again. The assemblage also signals a focus on the portrait-worthy, portending a drawing room history that will ignore the far wider range of characters who actually peopled Hamilton's World.

From His World the visitor segues through a doorway into His Vision - a great rectangular hall constituting the show's principal gallery space. Five giant video screens (each roughly 17'x17') stretch out ahead down the long left-hand wall. Each screen endlessly-loops a sequence consisting of a title (RULE OF LAW / FREE PRESS / THE ECONOMY / NATIONAL DEFENSE / THE CITY); some quotations from Hamilton; and a few short film clips. The screens are meant to represent the Present - the America Hamilton Made. As the official guide puts it, they offer "a series of filmed vignettes of modern American life, fading in and out with projections of Hamilton's words: a continuous alternation of 18th-century plans and 21st-century fulfillment."

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