|Should you go?|
|Time spent||46 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||For the second time in this project, I ran into Theda Bara, the proto-vamp of American cinema, starring in Cleopatra in the World War I exhibit’s section on popular entertainment.|
The Museum of Bronx History occupies the 1758 Valentine-Varian House. Ten years younger than the Van Cortlandts’ fancy mansion, this is the second oldest house in the Bronx.
Two stories tall and made of rough field stone, it feels solid and cozy and, like so many houses of its vintage, very symmetrical. Like Hamilton Grange, the house isn’t where it started out. In 1965 they moved it to its current spot in a quiet corner of a park and athletic complex.
Isaac Valentine was a blacksmith and farmer who owned over 200 acres of land, on which he built the house. While Valentine and his family lived there through most of the Revolutionary War, he later ran into dire financial straits. That forced him to sell the property, to Isaac Varian, a butcher and farmer, in 1792. This puzzles me a bit. It seems a relatively fine house for someone in either of those professions to afford. I suppose it was far outside New York City, and the land generated income (and food) for the families, over and above what came from the patriarchs’ professions.
A Text-Heavy Bronx History
The museum takes up only one floor — three rooms, a hallway, and a small gift shop. One room provides brief histories of the Bronx, the house, and the Valentine and Varian families, mainly in the form of very lengthy wall texts. It displays a few artifacts, including a replica of a revolutionary war uniform, some broken sherds of pottery, and reproductions of things the Valentines might have owned.
I liked that the exhibit includes not just the Bronx’s past and present, but its future as well, outlining several of the city’s plans to develop or redevelop sections. I find it interesting and optimistic that the Historical Society looks forward as well as back.
One more odd touch, the house also features some tombstones, which the Historical Society brought along when it moved it. I didn’t ask what they did with the occupants of the family graves, though I suspect they did come along as well. The gravestones rest in the house’s second fireplace, which is a decorating idea Martha Stewart would surely endorse.
The Bronx Historical Society uses the second and third rooms for temporary exhibitions. Currently, those spaces feature “Over There: America and the Great War.” This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the U.S. entering the war, and so a timely exhibit, speaking about the war and how it affected communities in the Bronx.
As with the exhibit on Bronx history, the World War I show includes a few artifacts—sheet music, ration cards, and most notably a bayonet and some other pieces of military gear. It also has many small reproductions of posters and photographs, and lots of lengthy, very small-font, wall text.
A House Divided
The Bronx Historical Society does an excellent job managing the melancholy Edgar Alan Poe Cottage. The Valentine-Varian house is older, but lacking a famous former resident it doesn’t have the same sort of resonance. It played a role in the Revolutionary War, but wasn’t nearly as important as the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Manhattan.
Indeed, the main problem with the Museum of Bronx History is it’s neither here nor there. It lacks the resources to execute the dual roles of historic house and broader history museum all that well. Where the Brooklyn Historical Society punches above its weight as a history museum, the Museum of Bronx History is more like the Old Stone House, a museum for the community it serves — helping tell the Bronx’s story to its residents. That said, it is not a place that everyone must visit.
It’s a nice house. I just wish the Historical Society could tell more of its story with objects and artifacts, rather than texts on the walls.
|Address||3266 Bainbridge Ave, the Bronx (at 208th Street)|
|Cost||General Admission: $5|
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