History in the Making

by Julia M. Klein
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“She’s very good and very smart,” Mirrer says, when asked why she selected Paley. “She had just completed a dissertation on this period, so the research was very fresh in her mind. And I knew I could work with her. People are going to judge the institution on this installation, and I wanted personally to make sure it met all expectations for giving people a palpable sense of history.”

Photo: Jorg MeyerAnd her exhortation to “use the busts”?

“Busts, in my opinion, are one of the most visceral expressions of the founding era,” Mirrer says. “You’re here with these people, they look at you, and I thought that museum-goers would feel the thrill of historical discovery were these people to come alive for them.”

So Paley asked her staff to survey the relevant busts in the collection. Then, she says, “all of a sudden, we started making this Venn diagram of relationships. For example, John Jay [1764KC] and Robert Livingston [1765KC]: frenemies. They were very close friends who met in college and then became bitter enemies and political rivals.” In the collection were busts of both statesmen, as well as letters between them that hinted at the complexity of the relationship.

In examining the era, Paley’s staff eventually produced an astonishing three thousand pages of research, which they boiled down to five hundred. They called on Small Design Firm, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to help them create technology that would allow visitors to drill deep into both the history and the objects on view — “almost the way a historian does research,” Paley says. Eventually, the touchscreens were supplemented by wall labels, an iPhone app, and a program guide.

New York Rising has five sections: “Revolution,” “Marketplace,” “Capital,” “Politics,” and “Civilization.” Each is anchored by a large painting that serves “as a kind of gateway into the larger story that we’re trying to tell,” Paley says. Vitrines contain an apparent jumble of smaller objects, including a brick from a tavern, a pair of child-sized slave manacles attached to a cast of a child’s hands, and one prize loan, from JPMorgan Chase: the dueling pistols used by Alexander Hamilton 1776KC and Aaron Burr. Below these, at floor level, are objects such as the prosthetic leg of Gouverneur Morris 1768KC and a keg that New York governor DeWitt Clinton 1786CC used to inaugurate the Erie Canal.

And the busts? Instead of positioning them high up, as though “they were looking down at the civilization below,” Paley says, she decided that “we’ll scatter them around the way the men were scattered around the city at the time.”

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

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