History in the Making

by Julia M. Klein
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Pulling Down the Statue of George III, New York City / by Johannes A. S. Oertel, 1852-1853

The exhibition’s juxtapositions are meant to be provocative. Near a large, headless statue of the British parliamentarian William Pitt, targeted by loyalists for his colonial sympathies, hangs a painting of an angry New York mob pulling down a monument to King George III. Beside it is another memento of that scene: a sculptural fragment from the tail of the horse the king was riding. Three artifacts, two acts of vandalism during the American Revolution: the connections aren’t immediately obvious, but, once explained, they convey the tumult of the period. 

The display also includes the utterly unexpected — such as a nineteenth-century portrait of a homely woman once thought, incorrectly, to be New York’s royal governor Lord Cornbury (1661–1723), in women’s clothes. An old label on the portrait advances this claim. Paley says she had to battle a curator who didn’t want this historical mistake displayed. “That’s why I want it there — because it’s wrong,” Paley says. “History is a reflection of the time in which it’s written. We use the portrait to represent [American feelings about] the decadence of British culture. But we’re also using it as an object lesson in how history is told.” 

In the end, New York Rising suggests that the Revolution and its aftermath didn’t just consist of “men marching around in costumes,” Paley says. “Children were there; slaves were there. We want to capture the hustle, the bustle, the smells, the feeling of what it’s like to live in this period.” 

New York Rising, it turned out, was just the starting point of the Smith Gallery, a modern, light-filled expanse visible through glass doors from Central Park. When it became clear that the space could hold more content, Paley filled it with a remarkable variety of exhibits, introducing the society’s collections, aims, and stance toward historical interpretation.

Alexander Hamilton / by Giuseppe Ceracchi, circa 1793

The first exhibit a visitor is likely to encounter is an installation by Fred Wilson titled Liberty/Liberté. Made for a 2006 show, Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery, the piece incorporates busts of George Washington and Napoleon, a wrought-iron balustrade from Federal Hall (where Washington was inaugurated), a tobacco-shop sculpture of an African-American, and slave shackles. Paley says it suggests a dialogue about “what is liberty to this slave and what is liberty to these freedom fighters who were slaveholders.” The Wilson piece is not only a commentary on the contradictions embedded in America’s founding myths but also serves as an introduction to the historical society itself, showing, Paley says, “that we embrace that sort of critical history.” 

One of the most engaging aspects of the Smith Gallery is History Under Your Feet, a tribute to urban archaeology. Displayed below the floor, in nine manhole-like exhibition cases, are such artifacts as the shoes of a child killed in a 1904 fire aboard a steamboat called the General Slocum (the deadliest catastrophe in New York before 9/11) and a crushed clock, stopped at 9:04 a.m., recovered from the World Trade Center debris. 

The clock is positioned underneath the scratched and battered door of a fire truck used by first responders on 9/11. Both are adjacent to Here Is New York, seventy-five photographs of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath, including images of the smoke enveloping the World Trade Center, the search for survivors, and a rally in defense of Muslims. Here Is New York faces New York Rising, and, as Paley points out, echoes it both visually, in its salon-style display, and intellectually, as a testament to New York’s capacity to remake itself after disaster. 

Also in the Smith Gallery are screens showing collection highlights, a ten-foot-tall display case for large-scale treasures, and a video animation based on Johannes A. S. Oertel’s Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City (1852–1853), which is displayed in New York Rising. The animation, inspired by the painting, responds to the movements of onlookers. When enough people congregate in front of it, the video mob pulls down the statue — a way, Paley says, of reminding visitors that they, too, have a role in the history of New York, that it wasn’t only the men whose heads were cast in marble and bronze who made things happen.

“There’s a process, and there’s a layering of history, and there’s no right and wrong necessarily,” Paley says. “History is part of a continuum — and the museum visitor is part of that.”

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

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