A history of the New-York Historical Society

The city's past comes to life as New York's oldest museum shows off some new tricks.

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  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    New-York Historical Society

  • Photograph: Courtesy Platt Byard Dovell White Architects

    Keith Haring Pop Shop Ceiling

    Keith Haring Pop Shop Ceiling

  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    New-York Historical Society

  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    New-York Historical Society

  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    New-York Historical Society

  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    New-York Historical Society

  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    New-York Historical Society

  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    New-York Historical Society

  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    New-York Historical Society

Photograph: Alex Strada

New-York Historical Society

"We are known as New York's best-kept secret or New York's attic," says New-York Historical Society president Louise Mirrer, who regards those titles as backhanded compliments, akin to calling the 207-year-old society an also-ran among NYC museums. When the institution reopens Friday 11 following a three-year, $65 million renovation, it hopes to establish a reputation as a vital part of local culture. As the society unveils its shiny new entrance hall, interactive technology stations and inventive new exhibitions, we look back at how the museum's own narrative intertwines with greater Gotham's past. To take part in the reopening festivities, check out our guide.

1789


George Washington is sworn in as the first President of the United States at Federal Hall on Wall Street. For the museum's reopening, artist Fred Wilson incorporated an iron balustrade from Federal Hall's original structure (the building was demolished in the 19th century) with other items in the NYHS collection—such as busts of famous leaders and slave shackles—into a sculpture called Liberty/Libert. The work greets visitors as they enter the building.

1804


Early philanthropist John Pintard founds the New-York Historical Society and then-mayor DeWitt Clinton offers it space in City Hall. A mission statement declares its intentions: "To collect and preserve whatever may relate to the natural, civil, literary and ecclesiastical history of the United States in general and of this State in particular." The society is New York's only museum that exhibits art until the Metropolitan Museum of Art is established 66 years later.

1908


NYHS, which by now boasts 434 of John Audubon's 435 original watercolors for his book The Birds of America (the 435th was acquired in 1966) and a trove of Hudson River School paintings among its collection, moves to its current Upper West Side building. The firm York and Sawyer, disciples of Gilded Age architects McKim, Mead and White, designs the structure. The renovation has uncovered some of the building's original details, such as five large supporting arches in the entrance gallery.

1918


In line with its founding principles, NYHS starts funding archeological digs around the five boroughs. Look down at the ground-level floor and you'll see some artifacts found on those excavation sites in an exhibit of a dozen display cases called "History Under Your Feet." Items include arrowheads and a clock stuck at 9:04am, which was recovered from the World Trade Center site wreckage that was deposited at Fresh Kills.

2005


Keith Haring's Pop Shop, which the artist opened in Soho in 1986 (four years before his death) to make his work more accessible and affordable, closes. The Keith Haring Foundation preserves the ceiling portion of a black-and-white mural Haring painted throughout the store's interior and donates it to NYHS. As part of the renovation, the society created a special support to display the work over the ticketing desk.

2011


The museum reopens with a redesigned entrance hall, a refurbished 420-seat theater and the new DiMenna Children's History Museum housed underneath the entrance hall. An Italian restaurant, Caff Storico, will debut later this month. Additionally, David Small Design Firm introduced numerous interactive elements, including a digital reproduction of the painting Pulling Down the Statue Of King George III, New York City, which becomes animated when motion-sensor cameras detect people in front of it. Swiveling touch screens (called rotary encoders) allow visitors to read about objects that the gadgets face in "New York Rising," one of the museum's new exhibits.

The rest is...


New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West between 76th and 77th Sts (212-873-3400, nyhistory.org). Tue--Thu, Sat 10am--6pm; Fri 10am--8pm; Sun 11am--5pm. $15, seniors and educators $12, students $10, children 7--13 $5, children under 7 free.

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New-York Historical Society Opening Weekend

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