New York Museums have a treasure trove of original and beautiful items in their exhibitions – and the newly reopened New York Historical Society Museum is no different. It’s New York’s oldest museum, pre-dating the Metropolitan Museum of Art by 70 years and it has just received a $70 million revamp.
Located adjacent to Central Park West and just across the street from the stately American Museum of Natural History, the Historical Society welcomes you with a life-size statue of Douglas Adams at one entrance and one of Abraham Lincoln at the other.
As you enter the building you come upon the Rotunda featuring beautiful art installations, as well as original New York artifacts from the Revolutionary Period and also from 9/11. For example, the Rotunda displays the original chair George Washington used at his Inauguration and the dueling pistols used by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The history buff in me almost fell over!
Additionally, there are large interactive screens showing the collection and explaining each piece in a large, bright text. The screens were extremely easy to use and much better than crouching in to see the tiny descriptions next to the exhibits. The 9/11 collection shows a small portion of the Museum’s photographs from the day.
Also on display on the ground floor is an exhibit called “Making American Taste” which has a collection of beautiful paintings that shaped 19th Century American culture. There is everything from European style religious paintings to depictions of life on an American farm. The centerpiece is Louis Lang’s enormous painting, The Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment, which greets you as you walk in. You don’t need to know anything about art to appreciate these works, they’re extremely accessible and the collection doesn’t overwhelm you with it’s size.
On the 4th floor, the Museum has a Luce Center (there is one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington) where visitors call see over 40,000 objects from the permanent collection displayed. There are paintings, furniture, silverware and much more to see here! Some of the more notable items include a set of chairs – one from Marie Antoinette’s boudoir and another from Napoleon’s – side by side. The Luce Center also boasts the world’s largest collection of original Tiffany Lamps and a full sized carriage that would have carried New York’s elite in the 18th Century.
During our time at the Museum, we were guided by a very well informed Docent and she really added to the experience for me. The only downside was that she wasn’t great with the microphone and we struggled to hear her at times. I’d be reluctant to do a self-guided tour of this Museum the first time there, probably because there are so many exquisite items on show. I would have had no idea which were the more impressive artifacts and art works! The Docent did a really great job of pointing out the collections’ highlights.
Every half hour there is an 18 minute film shown in their state of the art auditorium. The film documents the history of New York City through a multimedia experience with surround sound, theatrical lighting and effects. Unfortunately, our group missed the last showing of it (poor planning on the part of the tour’s organizers!) I think it’s something that visitors, especially New Yorkers would really enjoy.
There is also a brand new Children’s History Museum located in the basement, which I would have absolutely adored as a child.
As far as future exhibitions go – two of them caught my attention. One is called Stories in Sterling and will display the Museum’s silver collection along with the items’ backstories. Visitors will hear of the wealthy New York husbands that commissioned the likes of Tiffany to create silver collections for their wives. The pieces are beautiful and the stories are very interesting from the small taste I got!
Another will open in November 2012 and is called “New York and World War II” and will explore the effect the War had on this city. One of the pieces in this exhibit will be Irving Boyer’s, Prospect Park, ca. 1942–1944 which we got to see on our tour.
The restaurant the Museum houses will open later this year (it was under construction as we were touring) and is called Caffe Storico (Italian for “historic”). Another project of Stephen Starr (the man behind Buddakan and Morimoto), this casual dining experience is sure to be delicious! It’ll stay open after the Museum has closed to cater for New York diners as well as Museum go-ers.
In conclusion, the New York Historical Society Museum is beautifully laid out, accessible and has some extremely interesting historic and artistic pieces. I especially love how New York-centric it is. A lot of the exhibits really celebrate the great history of New York and it is sure to impress city natives and tourists alike. I would suggest a guided tour or an audio tour to get the full experience.