February 20, 1996
The Honorable Schuyler G. Chapin
Commissioner of Cultural Affairs
The City of New York
FAX: 212 247 4216
Dear Commissioner Chapin:
We are a group of concerned historians who applaud your
effort to foster a merger between the New-York Historical
Society and the Museum of the City of New York. Unfortunately,
most public conversation about your initiative has cast it
as a crisis intervention, narrowly focused on cost cutting.
We prefer to see it as we are sure you do -- an opportunity
to forge a new partnership that will be more, not less, than
the sum of its parts.
Despite the valiant effort of the two museums' financially
hard pressed staffs, New York has lagged behind other world
cities in presenting its historical resources to citizens
and tourists alike. Many member organizations of the newly
formed International Symposium on City Museums -- especially
those in Amsterdam, Belfast, Birmingham, Bombay, Jerusalem,
London, Melbourne, Montreal and Paris -- have undertaken pathbreaking
work in presenting local history to the public in a vivid
and memorable way. Outpaced abroad, we have also fallen behind
at home, as Atlanta, Chicago, Oakland, Philadelphia, Phoenix,
Pittsburgh, Portland, Richmond, San Diego, Seattle and Washington
have made great strides toward establishing interpretive history
centers. The sad truth is that right now there is nowhere
in our town that visitors, residents, and school children
can go -- must go -- to get a sweeping overview of New York's
past. While other cities cultivate their heritage as a precious
-- and enormously profitable -- resource, ours languishes
for want of coordinated attention.
There are, to be sure, a host of community-based and specialized
institutions, with more on the way. The work of (among many
others) the Brooklyn Historical Society, Richmondtown Restoration,
Lower East Side Tenement Museum, South Street Seaport Museum,
Museo del Barrio, the Schomburg Center, Queens Historical
Society, Museum of American Financial History, Bronx Historical
Society, Museum of Chinese in the Americas, Transit Museum,
and the city's many historic houses and preservation districts,
is a salutary sign of New Yorkers' grass roots determination
to preserve and present their past. But collaboration between
these groups is sorely lacking, diminishing the ability of
each to maximize its potential audience.
We believe that a city-brokered partnership between the
Museum of the City of New York and the New-York Historical
Society -- our two biggest such institutions -- can help transform
this situation, to the public's great benefit. United in a
common mission, they can jointly generate the energy and resources
to accomplish the following essential tasks:
1) Create a full-dress permanent exhibition that tells the
history of the city in a truly comprehensive way. Such an
interpretive overview, regularly upgraded, would deploy the
best new scholarship, use artifacts from the combined collections,
and employ the most dynamic, even dazzling museological techniques
to tell its story. It should become a "must-see"
stop on every tourist's itinerary, and a source of entertainment
and enlightenment for every citizen.
2) Develop temporary and travelling exhibits on an ever-expanding
range of subjects and issues, thus drawing in an ever-expanding
set of constituencies. The two historical institutions have
produced shows that explore particular neighborhoods, ethnic
groups, occupations, issues, and time periods. But neither
one, acting separately, has been able to generate the excitement,
or publicity, or visitation levels that might well be achieved
by a united effort.
3) Promote historic enterprises city-wide. No one institution
can -- or should -- do everything. The conjoint museum should
publicize New York's other historic museums, houses, sites,
and districts; maintain a computerized touch screen listing
of current exhibits and activities; perhaps even coordinate
a History Bus that could transport people to sites ranging
from the Morris-Jumel Mansion to Louis Armstrong's house.
4) Sustain a world class research library. The Society's collections
of books, manuscripts and graphics, augmented by those of
the Museum, form an essential resource for studying the city,
region, and country. We must make sure that this priceless
heritage is not lost to New York. Indeed access to some of
this material, now difficult and costly, should be expanded
and enhanced, and eventually computerized, digitized, and
linked to other historical collections in the region, perhaps
even the Municipal Archives.
5) Protect, display, and expand the integrated collections.
We need to ensure that the institutions' artifacts are well
cared for, as they are the memory markers of the metropolis.
They should be made accessible to the public through exhibitions
and a study center. And the collection process should become
an ongoing one, a vehicle for documenting the full range of
recent and contemporary life in the city, not just the distant
6) Organize public programming for adults: lectures and walking
tours; civic forums to set contemporary issues in historical
context; a Historymobile to ferry exhibitions to streets,
parks and playgrounds around the city; a History on Location
program to set up shows in venues around town; heritage trails
like the one being established in Lower Manhattan. Connections
could be made to convention and visitor oriented projects
like the Big Apple Greeter program, or to Landmark Harlem's
proposed Urban Cultural Park.
7) Undertake and coordinate educational programming: for
youthful in-house visitors; at schools; in programs designed
for teachers and their students oriented to state-mandated
history curriculums. There are a great number of imaginative
educational projects underway around the city, being done
in a wide variety of media. These enterprises, currently isolated,
could be made mutually reinforcing.
Turning such a bold and exciting vision into reality will
require going beyond a narrow focus on financial exigencies.
Yes, we need to achieve efficiencies, but in the long run
downsizing produces only diminishing returns. It will also
require the support of New Yorkers from many walks of life.
The revitalization of public history is too big to leave entirely
to the overburdened staffs of the two key institutions. To
be successful it must embrace the scholarly community, and
we think the city's historians must be far more fully engaged
than they have been in the past (there are none on staff at
either establishment). The effort must also enlist the community
of curators, librarians and archivists; the city's political,
economic, and cultural leadership; experts in private and
public sector heritage tourism and heritage-based economic
development; the print and electronic media; preservationists;
and concerned communities of every imaginable variety.
We call on you, as the city's cultural point person, to
convene a broad based planning group to tackle New York's
historic future. Many people have a stake in a successful
outcome for the proposed merger. In an earlier crisis (as
you can see from the attached petition) hundreds of scholars,
writers, architects, filmmakers, educators, preservationists,
lawyers, publishers, curators, librarians, artists, business
and political leaders rallied to keep history alive. That
constituency can be mobilized again to support your initiative.
We would like to meet with you in the near future to discuss
these matters. We will call you soon to find out if and when
this would be convenient.
PATRICIA U. BONOMI
Professor of History at New York University and author of
A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New York
(1971); Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics
in Colonial America (1986); and The Lord Cornbury Scandal:
The Politics of Reputation in Anglo-America (forthcoming).
She is a Fellow of the Society of American Historians and
has held research fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation,
the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the
Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.
Professor of History at Columbia, author of books, articles,
and essays on twentieth-century American history, including
Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great
Depression (winner of the 1983 National Book Award), The End
of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War, and The
Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People.
He contributes frequently to such publications as the New
York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the New York Times Book
Review and Magazine, and the Times Literary Supplement.
EDWIN G. BURROWS
Professor of History at Brooklyn College, teaches New York
City history, co-author of two volume History of New York
City (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster), recipient National
Endowment for Humanities Fellowship.
Gouverneur Morris Professor of History at Columbia University
and the author most recently of The Refinement of America:
Persons, Houses, Cities. His first book, From Puritan to Yankee:
Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765,
Bancroft Prize in American History.
Urban historian, lecturer on New York City history at Yale
University, Bank Street College, Sarah Lawrence College. Author
Seeing New York (1995).
ANDREW SCOTT DOLKART
Adjunct Associate Professor, Columbia University School of
Architecture. Author of numerous works on the architecture
and development of the city, including the recent Guide to
New York City Landmarks and a forthcoming study of Morningside
Heights; curator of an exhibit on New York architecture. President,
New York Chapter Society of Architectural Historians, 1988-92;
State Council on the Arts panelist, 1987-89; 1993-95.
DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia, author of
numerous books on 19th century American history, including
Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, winner of
the Bancroft Prize, Parkman Prize, LA Times Book Award and
others; named Scholar of the Year by the NY Council for the
Humanities in 1995; was president of the Organization of American
KENNETH T. JACKSON
Jacques Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences
and Chairman of the Department of History at Columbia University.
He is the editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City, which
recently won a Critics' Choice Award as one of the most acclaimed
books of 1995, and he is the author of Crabgrass Frontier:
The Suburbanization of the United States, which won both the
Bancroft and the Francis Parkman Prizes. He is a trustee of
the South Street Seaport Museum and the New-York Historical
Professor of American and American Urban History at The City
University of New York Graduate center; author of several
books on the history of New York, including Fiorello H. La
Guardia and the Making of Modern New York; director of ten
National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminars; holder
of Rockefeller, NEH and other research fellowships; directing
Ph.D. research on NYC history.
Executive Officer, Doctoral History Program, CUNY Graduate
Center, author of books on urban education, youth, and culture,
including Going Out, named by Washington Post as one of ten
best books of the year; completing a biography of William
Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice,
teaching New York City History. Co Author of forthcoming two
volume History of New York City from Simon & Schuster.
Consultant to many history museums, and author of collection
of essays on popular presentations of the past, Mickey Mouse
History, and Other Essays on American Memory. Fellowships
from National Endowment for Humanities and American Council
of Learned Societies.
Adjunct Associate Professor of Urban Studies, Columbia University,
School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; author
of numerous articles and the recent Form Follows Finance;
Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago; guest curator
of exhibitions on architecture and urbanism; founder and curator,
The Skyscraper Museum (first exhibition to open Fall 1996).
Professor of History and Women's Studies at Rutgers University.
She has published several books and articles on immigration
history, and is the recipient of the American Historical Association's
Marraro Prize. She has received major grants from the National
Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation,
and the Rockefeller Foundation. For almost a decade she served
as a member of the U.S. Department of the Interior's special
history advisory commission on Ellis Island and Statue of
Liberty National Monument Museums. She also serves on advisory
boards for the South Street Seaport Museum and the Tenement
LESLEY HERRMANN (Executive Director, Gilder Lehrman Institute)
ARTHUR SCHLESINGER, JR.