New-York Historical Society

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 94 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed,” 1919, a monumental oil painting on loan for the WWI show from the Imperial War Museum, London.  It’s a Sargent, so it’s as civilized and genteel as war gets. But at the same time, it’s a far cry from the fancy society folks I’m used to from him.

Sargent at New-York Historical Society

new-york historical society

The New-York Historical Society came into being in 1804, making it (according to itself) the oldest museum in the city. Its recent evolution presents a case study of a dusty old institution retooling itself for the social media age. Over the past decade or so a series of renovations turned it from the somewhat hermetic, academic attic of the city into a bright, airy, less-dense institution. Bronze statues of Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass welcome you outside the front doors, and that unexpected, slightly eccentric vibe continues within.

Of the many things I like about the Historical Society, I sometimes think my favorite thing is the hyphen between “New” and “York.” Nowhere else bothers with that anymore. However, without it visitors might think that they are visiting the new historical society of York, England. I bet that happened a lot in the 19th century. It’s really thoughtful.  I shall feel quite cross if they ever drop it and rebrand as the Newyork Historical Society.

Things to See — and to Interact With

The Society introduces visitors to its subject via a multiscreen, multimedia, immersive documentary on the history of the city, which is terrific if you’re a tourist but less needed if you’re local (it’s still got a fair amount of razzle-dazzle factor).

New-York Historical Society

A set of artifacts along one wall in the lobby feature large, swivel-able touch screens that let you zoom in and learn more about them. Notably these include the plaque that formerly marked the spot of the infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and a copy of the famous Roman-looking bust of A.Ham found at Hamilton Grange.  And, for some reason, replicas of the dueling pistols themselves.  But they’re just replicas, so I’m not sure why anyone would get excited over them.

Hamilton Monument at New-York Historical Society
Hamilton Got Shot Here. Here-ish.


WWI at New-York Historical Society
Dazzle Camouflage

In addition to the eclectic lobby gallery and the auditorium, the ground floor hosts temporary exhibit space. The day I visited the society featured “World War I: Beyond the Trenches,” which examined artists’ responses to the war. The exhibit engages with how art drove American sentiment before we got involved, as well as responded to the horrors of war during and after.  The Sargent mentioned above is the showstopper, but sculptures by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (of THE Whitney!) and two watercolors by Georgia O’Keeffe surprised me. And of course the war posters are there (“I want YOU”). Solid, well curated, good stuff.

O'Keeffe at New-York Historical Society
Georgia O’Keeffe, “The Flag,” 1918, watercolor on paper.

Art & Culture

New-York Historical Society

Upstairs the Society shows off some of its art collection, which is so-so at best, but which lets it speak to the kinds of art with which rich New Yorkers liked to decorate their homes. The Society recently acquired a massive Picasso theatrical backdrop, which for decades resided in the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building. Art history and culinary history encapsulated in one piece.

Eloise at the New-York Historical Society

And it featured a show on Eloise, perpetually six years old and living at the Plaza. I didn’t know Eloise as a kid, she wasn’t on my radar. This fun show focused on the Eloise phenomenon, her creators, and the vicissitudes of their collaboration. I have a six-year-old niece, and this exhibit inspired me to recruit Eloise to help convince her to want to come visit.

A gallery of Kennedy photos and a small exhibit about “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (?!) rounded out the eclectic exhibits.

“A New Story”

Tiffany at New-York Historical Society
Tiffagrammable Moments

Most recently in its ongoing cycle of renovations, the New-York Historical Society updated its fourth floor. Previously it featured a large slice of the Society’s less important objects, arrayed in glass cases for the interested. Racks of chairs, an array of sculpture and statuary, third tier landscape paintings, and so forth, in profusion. The new fourth floor embraces the contemporary museum “less is more” philosophy.  It reduces the amount of stuff on display in favor of uncluttered storytelling. And photogenic-ness. There’s a large space devoted to Tiffany, and the Society’s collection of Tiffany lamps. I like Tiffany just fine, don’t get me wrong. However, it feels like the driving motivation for this dramatic space, with its lighting and glass staircase, is to create amazing photo ops.

Tiffany at New-York Historical Society
Design your own Lamp

More positively, the New-York Historical Society does some really neat things with interactivity.  A clever “make your own Tiffany lamp” table enraptured me.  From that to the screens in the lobby, this place leverages technology in engaging and creative ways.

Who Should Visit the New-York Historical Society?

If you’re a visitor to this fair city, and you want to learn where it came from and how it got to be this way, the Museum of the City of New York’s comprehensive overview will give you that better than anywhere else at the moment. But if you live here, or you seek a more eclectic (or even eccentric) view of the story of New York, the N-Y HS is for you. Its video overview presents the city in an immersive nutshell, freeing the curators to use the space for other things.  The Society boasts the Dimenna Children’s History Museum downstairs, with an engaging “detectives” theme. And of course a show like Eloise appeals across ages.

I feel some concern that the Society may be leaning too hard on entertaining  at the expense of edifying. It’s in good company there (Brooklyn!) and in its defense, it has a unique heritage and mission that will hopefully help it maintain balance between the various competing museum imperatives, even as it does become one of my exemplars of Instagrammable institutions.

Important note on food: the New-York Historical Society also boasts a simply beautiful restaurant, Storico. I’m not sure why it’s Italian, but it’s one of the best museum restaurants in the city. I’m glad the Society didn’t attempt some gimmicky eclectic New York mish-mosh (bagels and chow fun…upscaled hot dogs and black-and-white cookies). Anyway, I highly recommend Storico if you happen to be in the neighborhood. I like it far better than the dining options at the American Museum of Natural History up the street.

New-York Historical Society

For Reference:

Address 170 Central Park West (at 77th Street), Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $21, pay what you will on Friday evenings
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