History in the Making

by Julia M. Klein
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President Washington Taking the Oath, 1789 / by Giuseppe Guidicini, 1839Use the busts. Tell that story. Go.” 

These were the marching orders that Valerie Paley ’11GSAS was given in 2008 when the head of the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library asked her to curate an exhibition called New York Rising. The show, which combines a crowded, salon-style display of artifacts and images with touchscreen technology, was designed to be the centerpiece of the society’s first-ever permanent installation and a key part of its recent $70 million renovation.

Paley, who is the society’s historian for special projects, faced a daunting curatorial task. The show’s intended focus was Revolutionary and Federalist New York, including the city’s occupation by the British, its largely unheralded role as America’s first capital, the birth of Wall Street, and the 1804 founding of the New-York Historical Society itself. Paley knew she had to employ the traditional artifacts in the collection, starting with the busts. This posed a serious problem.

“We don’t do the history of dead white men,” Paley explains. “It’s not the sort of history we’re taught in the academy anymore, nor is it the sort of history that is revered among scholars. We want to do something a little deeper and more nuanced. But to superimpose the new social history on busts of dead white men can be a fraught process.”

Paley was born in New York City in 1961 and grew up in Greenwich Village, where, she says, “I always had this palpable sense of history around me.” But her route to becoming a historian was circuitous: she trained, from age three to fourteen, with the Joffrey Ballet, until an injury caused her to switch to modern dance (as a teenager she performed with the Valerie Bettis Dance/Theater Company). Following what she calls her “thwarted career as a ballet dancer,” Paley entered 

Vassar College, where she majored in English and psychology. After graduation, she joined her father’s graphic-design business, becoming first art director, then creative director. She retired in 1990 when her son was born (she now has a daughter as well and is married to a “semi-retired money manager”). But she soon found that “stay-at-home mothering as a full-time job wasn’t really my thing.”

So, at thirty-three, Paley entered Columbia as a master’s student in liberal studies, with a concentration in American studies. “Everything I did there was tailored around the idea of New York history and New York culture and architecture and preservation,” she says. “I absolutely loved it. I was almost bereft when I finished.”

Encouraged by her mentor, Kenneth T. Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor in History and the Social Sciences, Paley laid aside plans to be an archivist and enrolled in Columbia’s doctoral program in history. She received her PhD this past May and was class valedictorian. Her dissertation discussed how the trustees of New York cultural institutions “shaped the cultural infrastructure of the city” and argued that the city’s “openness to difference . . . made for some exceptional, world-class institutions.” 

Meanwhile, Paley had been volunteering at both the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of the City of New York. In 2002, Jackson, who was president of the New-York Historical Society at the time and is now a trustee, offered Paley a position as editor of the society’s journal. Paley accepted. This led her to the editorship of several exhibition catalogs. Then, in 2008, she got the call from Jackson’s successor, Louise Mirrer: would Paley be interested in creating the new permanent installation in the Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History?

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This is an excellent story about a fascinating topic- great stuff!

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Maybe next time