Just finished a whirlwind visit to New York City where I saw old friends and popped in to visit four separate historical museums. I got extremely lucky with the weather: sunny and high 70s with a nice breeze the whole time I was in town. It was a bit of an odd trip, scheduled at the last minute to send Adriana off to her month at Blue Mountain Center (where I’ve been myself twice previously—an incredible experience of generosity and support for writers) and to prevent losing about 30,000 about-to-expire miles on one of the frequent flyer programs I’m enrolled in.
Since I’m off to Berlin at the end of October for a “History From Below” conference of DIY historians, I thought I should do some extra research in New York in preparation for that confab. I’ll talk about what I saw in the order I did them in, starting with the City Museum of New York’s exhibit on “Activist New York,” then the Museum of the Chinese in America in Chinatown, then the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, and finally the recently opened Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space in the East Village.
With all the work I’ve been doing over the years with Shaping San Francisco and our archive at Foundsf.org, I have thought a lot about how to present historical information. But I can’t honestly say I’ve settled on any particular formula that feels like it always works. Sometimes I want great depth and complexity, other times a photo essay tells the story best, and then there are times when an oral history clip, either video or audio, can really bring a story to life. Other times such clips can be weirdly trivial and uninteresting, so there’s not a sure-fire way to approach these things.
Similarly, there’s been a discussion about a Museum of the City of San Francisco going on for years now. The project as it is so far constituted is controlled by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society (though I’ve heard rumors that they may be breaking it apart again after some five or maybe even 10 years of not succeeding as a shotgun marriage) and is projected to open someday at the Old Mint at 5th and Mission. But the SFMHS has not been able to advance the project beyond the drawing board and some elaborate but unrealized plans drawn up by well-paid consultants. Having seen the plans going back some years now, I was never very excited about what they were going to do, and definitely wondered about how well it would work, how likely it would be to engage and provoke people to think historically, or might it not be just another cable-car-and-sourdough-bread-on-the-Golden-Gate-Bridge disneyfied history?
Meanwhile, Richard Everett and Amy Hosa at the San Francisco National Maritime Museum have created a marvelous mini-museum of San Francisco history, called “The Waterfront” (free and open to the public at the Visitor Center in the corner of the Argonaut Hotel at Jefferson and Hyde), which does a fine job of telling the central story of San Francisco’s rise and development along its waterfront, which encompasses a great deal of the City’s basic economic and social history as a result. I actually wonder why we need another history museum, even though I can imagine many more historical threads to unwind in other narratives. In any case, my skepticism notwithstanding, I often find museums flat and dull and pointless, if not actively reinforcing the worst clichés and falsehoods that tend to pass for history in our amnesiac society. That I found “The Waterfront” so engaging and well-informed, informative and smart, saved the idea of museums for me, to some extent.
So in New York I went out looking at these four different institutions to see what I would learn from them, both in terms of the histories they’re presenting, but also how they’re presenting them, how they’re engaging in basic historiography. A good friend told me about the “Activist New York” exhibit after he visited it a month ago and I went hoping to find it inspiring. But something about it went flat for me soon after I started wandering through it. It’s all in one big room, divided into more than a half dozen alcoves. In each there are artifacts, huge photos on the walls, displays highlighting characters who participated in the movements being documented, and small kiosks in the middle of the floor where you can connect to current organizations still campaigning on similar issues. There was a section on women’s rights and suffrage, a section on the proletarian literature movement of the 1930s, the labor movement through the years, the gay and lesbian and transgender movement, the bicycling movement of the past few decades, the urban and architectural preservation movement (with a focus on fighting Robert Moses in NYC), and of course the Civil Rights movement and its connection to the original abolitionists; there was even a display on the “Conservative Party of New York” and its so-called activism. More »