Gotham in the Gallery

How do you summarize a city? The Museum of the City of New York has just opened a permanent exhibition that represents “New York at Its Core.” It tells the story, in space, of how New York came to be New York. Cities in miniature have long served purposes of urban planning, public information, boosterism, and voyeurism, in one combination or another. 19th century painted panoramas transported people to cities far from their hometowns. Immersed in a 360-degree microcosm, spectators could survey a city from all angles, experiencing Calcutta without leaving Bristol, or New York in the center of Paris. Planning exhibitions of the 1920s summarized city housing programs and social statistics through simple, modern icons, giving the public a snapshot of the work being done and challenges ahead. At the Panorama commissioned for the New York 1964 World’s Fair by Robert Moses (on permanent display at the Queens Museum to this day) visitors could survey the modern metropolis and all its new constructions from above.

The way we look at the past and present of our urban environment also guides how we imagine its future. Today, we’ve moved from an age of master plans to a more fractured approach to city building, and the bird’s eye view been supplanted by the age of big data. We survey the city more through media than models. “New York at Its Core” does not tell one overarching story about the city. Rather, it traces four themes of money, diversity, density, and creativity, from the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 into an uncharted future, and invites viewers to imagine the many ways that future might take shape. Five years in the making, the exhibition itself reflects its major themes. It is the work of a diverse group of authors: a host of advisors guided exhibition curators Hilary Ballon, Steven Jaffe, and Sarah Henry, and many more voices are present in the galleries. Dense with objects, images, and interactive experiences, “New York at Its Core” was creatively designed by Studio Joseph, Local Projects, and Pentagram, with resources only a moneyed major city could marshal. We talked with historian Sarah M. Henry, Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the museum, about the new exhibition and how a look at the city’s history can invite a rethinking of its future.


Visitors navigate the stories of 20th century New York characters including ACT UP organizer Larry Kramer. | Photo by Filip Wolak courtesy MCNY

UO: “New York at Its Core” is an exhibit that is meant to sum up the city: 8.5 million people, 400-plus years of history, all in about 6500 square feet of exhibition space altogether. It’s an incredibly ambitious undertaking — what prompted it?

Sarah Henry: We’ve always felt that it is incumbent upon us as the Museum of the City of New York to undertake this project. On some level it’s an utterly impossible thing to do; on the other hand we knew going into it that it would be impossible, and unnecessary, to try to take an encyclopedic approach. Even if one were to achieve it, it would be ineffective because it would confuse and overwhelm people. With all of our temporary shows, we avoid doing a show about a topic, instead we present an argument or a question. So we brought the same intellectual practice to bear on this. Which is not to say that this is everything that ever happened to New York — that would be impossible and not that interesting probably. But this is to answer a question: What is it that makes New York, New York?

What does it mean to be a city museum and what role does such a museum play in its city?

The Museum of the City of New York was founded in 1923, and it was the first city museum in the United States. It’s a concept that is familiar to people in other parts of the world but not that common in the United States. Our topic is the past, present, and future of the five boroughs of New York City. Fundamentally we are a museum about a place; we are not a history museum, by definition, though much of what we show is about what has happened in the city. Our lens is the nature of urban life in New York, and urbanism more broadly speaking.

We see ourselves as a civic institution fostering conversation and inquiry into the city, about both where we have been and where we are going. That was the idea of the museum from the very beginning. The impulse to create the Museum of the City of New York in the early 1920s came out of a progressive era moment that not coincidentally was also coming off the time of highest immigration into the country and into the city in its history. The museum’s founders saw their purpose as acculturating, if not assimilating, the young people of this new generation, these new New Yorkers: to get them to understand and feel enfranchised in the place where they lived. Now this has all sorts of cultural subtext, but there is part of it that we feel still resonates to this day. A museum has a certain authority: it speaks, but more importantly it’s a social space in which people learn from the exhibits and from one another. So we are inherently a kind of dialectical space on some level, and that fostering of conversation and that engagement is an important civic act.

Our exhibitions and our public and education programs constitute an urban forum without an agenda. Unlike institutions that are involved in some of the same discussions but have advocacy missions with the purpose of promoting something, we don’t promote anything besides, simply: How do you make life successful in this dense urban place?

What precedents did you reflect on, or what peer institutions did you look to, when you started this endeavor?

One great counterpoint for us is the Chicago History Museum, which used to be called The Chicago Historical Society. It has a similar relationship to its subject. The Museum of London and the Amsterdam Museum are both institutions based in cities with which we share history, so it’s interesting that there is a direct connection as well as a parallel.

Both of them to some degree are fostering this kind of conversation about citizenship, but I think we’ve taken it to a different place than other museums have. In “New York at Its Core”, we devote more than a third of the space, our largest gallery, to the future. While we’ve seen other places that engage with the future, I’m not aware of another, within the context of a city museum, making such a bold and affirmative move to say that the future is not just the epilogue to what we are presenting, but it’s actually independently or equally important.

The Panorama of the City of New York installation at the Queens Museum; the model was originally made of wood and brass, at a scale of one inch per 100 feet. | Photo by fliegender via Flickr

I think about the Panorama of the City of New York as a precursor. Now at the center of the Queens Museum, it was conceived for the 1964 World’s Fair by Robert Moses. It’s an example of creating a totalizing picture of the city, one that’s connected to a view of the future but is also meant to be a summation of accomplishments.

The question is, how do you conceptualize the city? Do you think of New York from the top down — literally, as in, I’m high above it and seeing it as a whole, an organism with tremendous complexity and variations, but still as a unit — in order to get your head around it? Or do you construct a narrative through individual lives, of the view from the street? Our strategy in the exhibition was to embrace both. In each of the galleries we have a series of animated maps that enable you to take that 35,000 feet view, which shows what’s going on as the whole, and then to see granularity within that, which allows you to appreciate the varied experience on the ground, neighborhood by neighborhood.

In each of the galleries that macro view coexists with a micro view as a counterpoint. In the case of the historical galleries it’s the use of specific streetscapes, which bring you down to the ground and make you feel the feet on the pavement, and then the selection of a series of individual characters from the city’s history to use as a lens into not just their lives, but what they say about New York as a whole at that time.

In the Port City gallery, Susie Rocco, a 19th century slum resident, describes the New York City of her day. | Photo by Filip Wolak courtesy MCNY

Our exhibition asked the question: What makes New York, New York? We distilled that down to four words: money, density, diversity, and creativity. Both the macro view with the maps and the micro view with the people are ways into that story. It’s appropriate that, for something as complex and daunting as New York City, one technique doesn’t suffice. We expect that different visitors will be compelled by and attracted to different modalities first and then may visit the other in the aftermath. Some people just gravitate toward those maps, and some people go right for the personal, and the maps have more meaning for them when they go and pick them up on the rebound. And then there is the real meat of the matter: what exists in between the macro and the micro, which is the heft of the story, told through objects and artifacts in the historical galleries, and then through a host of other tools in the gallery about the future (since there are no artifacts of the future).

In part, you answer these questions in a way that only a museum can. The traditional approach of a history exhibit is to put visitors in contact with images or material objects that have a historical weight, a real presence. How do you decide which objects make the cut?

It’s a ridiculous task to pick 450 objects to tell the story of New York. So having started with that, the thing that this exhibit has in common with every exhibition is that it is an exercise in distillation, clarification, and selection. Studio Joseph did the exhibition design and helped us present things in a way that is visually simple and clear. We want visitors to engage with the complexity the objects offer without feeling visually assaulted by them.

You have to do a little cost-benefit analysis of the space and what makes an object eloquent to tell a story that it is connected with. Objects can be unleashed or bridges can be made between the visitor and the object that create pathways of understanding and learning, but the objects mostly just sit there. Having the drama of the design helps because artifacts that look very mundane sitting in a pile can take on a great deal of meaning when treated visually in a certain way that gives them gravitas. And when you take something humble and give it the same treatment you would give a more rarefied object, you can make a statement to do with issues of class and inequality.

An ankle shackle, used on enslaved people, on display in the Port City gallery. | Photo by Olivia Schwob

What’s an object that you are particularly keen on for its storytelling ability?

I think one of the most eloquent examples is the slave shackle, in the section on New York’s English period. It’s a very simple looking object; it has obviously suffered from being buried underground and there is kind of an austerity to its presence in the case, where its violent history comes across more clearly — you can imagine a person’s leg in there because there is room around it.

In the section about New York’s funky creativity in the 1970s we really wanted to put in Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street in his garbage can, but he just wasn’t going to fit. We also considered a beautiful artist’s drawing of Oscar, but in the end we went with a video of Sesame Street. I think that video, treated as an artifact, is a really powerful tool to use in a 20th century exhibition.

You balance so many forms of media in the “World City” gallery, from individual audio pieces to environmental sounds and graphics. The ambient sounds in particular are so transporting, you feel like you have stepped into the city when you walk into the gallery. How did you construct that atmosphere?

We use a lot of artifactual or archival audioRoosevelt’s voice and Kenneth Clarke’s voice and Mayor Wagner’s voice, for example. There is nothing like a human voice to make it feel like communication is happening between the historical person and the visitor. World City in Motion, the media piece that hangs in the middle of the gallery, is a compendium of a lot of different moving and still images. Although the gallery begins in 1898, we want you to get that 20th century sense of metropolitan New York immediately when you come in. The media piece in the middle, which is very impressionist, takes you from 1898 to 2012 in three minutes, focusing on five different topics: the city, street life, the economic life of the city, cultural life, and transport.

The message is that New York changed really fast in the 20th century but, also, it sort of didn’t change. You recognize something fundamental about the city, when you see those films from 1908: the clothes are different, the faces look different, but there’s something that you can recognize in the nature of this urban life.

But the bigger intention of this piece is to mentally connect you with that time, and to feel the gestalt of the city. I think the quintessential New York experience is just being on the street. We wanted to bring that into the gallery and let people witness it, as a counterpoint to the maps, which go through the history and give you a very data-driven, precise, wonky big picture. The media pieces are just the opposite; they capture the je ne sais quoi of New York, so visitors can soak that in.

We’ve heard many people say, “I have to come back because I haven’t seen everything. I want to dig deeper.” And that seems appropriate for New York City. If you could just swallow it in one quick fast food meal it wouldn’t be New York; it’s a feast. You need to give yourself time to digest between courses.

And you might get slightly overwhelmed but you’d also be excited by the fact that there is more to see…

Yes, if it wasn’t a little overwhelming it wouldn’t be New York, we would have really missed something.

Animated maps in the galleries trace exhibition themes, including diversity, over time and space. | Photo by Filip Wolak courtesy MCNY

A lot of the information in the exhibit is relayed through data, and displayed on screens, which you would think could be experienced anywhere. At the same time, the exhibit accomplishes so much through the design and the atmospherics of the gallery. Space does matter! But having amassed and curated this trove of material and information, how does the space of the gallery relate to the world beyond? What can people take home with them?

We made a conscious decision to concentrate on what we would provide our visitors while they are here. There was a close collaboration between the physical and media designers, which made the material of the digital media as important as the materiality of a conventional artifactual piece. They worked together to create a totality of an environment.

But we know there is tremendously more than people can absorb in one visit. While we want everyone to come back multiple times, we also know that there are a lot of opportunities ahead of us to make this material more consumable after or before the visit. We just launched a beautiful new website which enables us to do different types of storytelling online.

The question of how this relates to the world outside is particularly exciting and challenging for a city museum. A place like the Metropolitan Museum of Art relates to the world beyond it — the entire world of all human art — but that world is not right outside its door. But we are a part of our topic, we are physically embedded in and immersed in the context that we curate, which is the city. There are really wonderful and enviable opportunities there, but we also have to be selective because if we put tentacles out into everything outside our door, that is as impossible as bringing everything inside.

In the Future City Lab, a map table lets visitors see how transit is changing in the present day. | Photo via Local Projects

The Museum regularly engages with issues in the city’s built environment — your current exhibit on zoning, or previous exhibits on affordable housing. The Future City Lab is a space oriented towards the future. How does the Lab relate to the big questions in urban planning today?

We were committed to not venturing into the realm of futurology — we weren’t trying to spin out science fiction or prediction about what the city will be. But we wanted to stay connected to civic space as a place where imaginations and ideas about agency could be played out. It was very important that we start with data and information about where the city is now. As much as the historical maps show you how New York changed over time on a macro level, in the Future City Lab, we have over 100 maps that answer the question, “What is New York now?”

The map table in the Future City Lab displays the location of public transit stops throughout the city. | Photo via Local Projects

The map table in the Future City Lab displays the extent of the city’s public transport network. | Photo via Local Projects

We don’t really think about the Future City Lab as a gallery about planning per se. We picked five challenges connected to the words that we organized the historical exhibits around — density, diversity, money, and creativity — not exactly keyed to those terms, but clearly correlated. For example, the section on living together is very much about the diversity of the city and how we continue to be a place of inclusion or become more inclusive. That is really not a planning question.

But then, the questions that have a built environment angle have a wonderful concreteness. If you could be the Robert Moses of the future, what would your city look like? The activities that we give people to do, which include designing a building, a street, and a park, aren’t meant to be robust planning activities so much as to get people to think about choices and values and trade-offs. And to think more broadly about possibility, which is equally embedded in the very low tech What If Table. The message there is that New York has not always been as it is now. It changed because of things that people did. It’s not going to be as it is now in the future, so what is the direction of change, how do you begin that? You have to open people’s mind to the idea that there are possibilities, that we are not stuck in the perpetual present. Escape from the tyranny of what is and think about what could be.

Spoken like a true historian.

Yup, that’s where I’m coming from.

A big part of being able to engage with the future or the past is being able to stimulate your imagination, which has a lot of do with your ability to believe in the possibility of change. So, for example, the What If Table is very playful. It’s designed to put people at ease: they are around a table which already has a kind of metaphorical quality of a gathering place, and it has a game-like quality, but without rules. People use it however they want, but it’s very intuitive; it’s intentionally approachable. And people get it right away. You ask: “What if?” Why is this a ridiculous idea? You have to be willing to say something that seems initially ridiculous in order to build, for instance, the subway system. What if we brought water from the Croton River? What if we just stopped drinking the filthy water from the Collect Pond as New York did until the 1810s? What if we brought water from where it’s clean from the mountains? That would have sounded like a crazy idea.

Visitors and experts reflect on alternative visions of New York City’s future at the What If Table. | Photo by Olivia Schwob

The brightly colored squares recall the wall of Post-it notes that went up in the Union Square subway station after the election, which is obviously a coincidence. The show has just opened on the tails of the presidential election and the sense of geographical polarization it brought to the fore. How do you think about the exhibit in terms of the different visitors who experience it? What is there for the student at the elementary school next door, and what would you hope people will take away if they’re not New York City residents?

This is something that we inevitably think about a lot, because we do speak to a wide variety of visitors. We always want to be able to speak to people from far away or to avid New Yorkers — we should have things for people in the know and for newbies in the city. Part of the power of the map presentation is that it gives an introduction, to orient people to the shape and the location and size of the city, where things are. It’s important for us to serve the tourists who want that overview. But it’s very much part of our mission to serve repeat visitors from New York who want to deepen their understanding. We have an advantage because anyone who comes to this museum wants to understand New York better, they’re already open to it. Whether they love or hate it, or whatever complicated feelings they have about it, they are invested in the city. If somebody really doesn’t want to know about New York or associates it with something that they can’t identify with, it’s unlikely that they would come to this museum in the first place.

Post-It reflections on the aftermath of the election in Union Square station. | Photo by Signe Schloss

Post-it reflections on the aftermath of the presidential election in Union Square station. | Photo by Signe Schloss

On the broader political question — in the very early days of thinking about the show, we were thinking about this dichotomy, this schizophrenia in New York about its relationship to America. Is New York the most American place, the quintessential place? This is where the Statue of Liberty is, this is where Wall Street is, where all these things that you identify with America come from. Or is it the least American place? Throughout its history, that dichotomy has existed. In the 21st century, the question of what New York represents to America has been at the front of these conversations and in its nature — money, diversity, our population, and who we are, how we live together, density and its form. The obvious counterpart is Al Smith’s campaign in the presidential election of 1928. He was the first Catholic to be nominated by a major political party, and what he represented as a New Yorker and the idea of New York values at that time has a lot of resonance now. New York is a place that is both utterly anomalous and completely representative.

This brings us back to your very first question about the nature of the city museum. I said we were interested in New York life and by extension urban life. And that completely begs the question of how New York is anomalous or representative of urbanism. Are we presenting what is different or exceptional about New York, or are we interested in New York because it’s emblematic? And our answer is, of course, sort of both, so we just keep going and don’t get too bogged down in that.

One of the things that we want to do as an institution devoted to public education is to get people to think in more complex ways about density. I think it won’t be surprising to people who are interested in urbanism that we present density as an urban asset. But that is surprising to some of the people on the street who associate density more with overcrowding and with problems. The exhibit tries to help people think of density as an asset, one that has to be managed in order to make it livable. But that’s easier for New Yorkers to understand than for people who haven’t lived in New York, or who are just daunted by how many people live in such a small space. The question gets played out in a lot of different ways in the exhibition, including data about density, but we also have a lot of material to do with urban design and infrastructure. What systems make density livable, to what degree are those major projects sometimes legacies from 100 years ago that are still in use? And then, what is the equivalent today, what investments should we be making that will bear fruit for generations going forwards?

One thing that makes it so interesting is that it isn’t simple and there isn’t one answer. You have both sides of the coin in each of those questions. For people who just can’t stand New York for whatever reason, it’s just too noisy for them or whatever, or they love to visit it but they couldn’t live here, or they could never live anywhere else and they get hives if they go across the Hudson. You’ve got every type of emotion you could have about a city, blown up, exponentially, about New York. That variation is just a great opportunity, an endless source of things to argue about.

That is the idea of a museum, of the exhibition, at the end of the day. It’s a place of debate.


Sarah M. Henry PhD is the Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of the City of New York, where she has guided the creation of more than 150 exhibitions since 2001, as well as overseeing the Museum’s public programs, school programs, and publications. She is the recipient of the Manhattan Borough President’s “History Visionary Award” and a member of the New York Academy of History.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.

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