A walk through (centuries of) New York history

WAG had the chance to renew an old acquaintance last week – and what a lovely morning that proved to be.

The acquaintance was actually the Museum of the City of New York, a favorite New York destination that’s been the subject of a number of features in our pages over the years.

A little too much time has passed between visits, so we made a point to spend some time once again enjoying the treasures gathered beyond its most stately façade.

Specifically drawing us to the museum on this chilly day was the chance to explore “New York at Its Core,” the museum’s latest – and incredibly far-reaching – exhibition devoted to “400 Years of New York City History.”

It sounded like a daunting premise – fitting four centuries into a single exhibition – but what a stunning success it turns out to be.

The museum’s first permanent exhibition, five years in the making and unveiled in mid-November, occupies the entire first floor with three interactive galleries. It’s all devoted to “what makes New York New York,” touching on money, diversity, density and creativity.

The show begins with “Port City, 1609-1898,” which follows New York’s “remarkable three-century evolution from a remote outpost for trade between the Dutch and native people into the largest, most densely populated, most diverse and most influential city in the United States.”

Here, we meet historical personalities ranging from Henry Hudson to Walt Whitman to Cornelius Vanderbilt; see artifacts that include model ships, 18th-century silver sugar tongs, oyster shells larger than your hand and circa-1900 women’s carriage boots featuring brocaded silk with fur trim; and explore the city’s diverse neighborhoods and destinations ranging from Chinatown to Coney Island, complete with 1890 amusement-park tickets.

The second gallery is devoted to “World City, 1898-2012,” and is a showcase of “the dizzying evolution of New York as it grew into a modern global metropolis in the 20th century.”

Here you can listen to Theodore Roosevelt in a 1912 audio recording by Thomas A. Edison on “Social and Industrial Justice” and hear him address the issue of a living wage. (Always a timely topic, it seems).

This gallery takes the visitor on a fast-paced jaunt with stops to see even more stunning New York artifacts. There’s a 1920s dance dress complete with silk fringe that would catch any flapper’s eye. We see tap shoes worn by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and then walk through the Depression before continuing the journey. There is a Look magazine spread on Lincoln Center titled “Culture City,” noting it as the “new U.S. capital for the performing arts.” There are baseballs signed by Jackie Robinson and a mini chandelier that decorated a Tiffany & Co. window in 1961, as well as a 1951 Vogue photograph by Cecil Beaton featuring models standing in front of the groundbreaking art of Jackson Pollock.

We explore the city’s economic woes of the 1960s and ’70s, also a time of racial tension.

We then revisit the heyday of graffiti, the birth of hip hop and the heady days of disco, complete with a case full of Studio 54 memorabilia. Along the way, we experience “Sesame Street” and Patti Smith, the politics of Ronald Reagan the devastation of the AIDS epidemic and New York’s “New Gilded Age,” illustrated by elements that include a storyboard for the movie “Wall Street,” before we advance to the last section, that addresses sobering sections devoted to Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy.

Finally, “New York at Its Core” looks ahead with “Future City Lab,” a “cutting-edge interactive space that explores challenges and opportunities facing New York and invites visitors to help imagine the city’s future.”

It’s a high-tech space that explores topics ranging from housing and population to nature and climate change, considering how people will live and work in New York through 2050.

Once you’ve toured the three well-designed spaces, feel free to pause in the shadow of the museum’s sweeping staircase, as we did, and reflect on the equally sweeping – and rewarding – exhibition.

Though we had seen much, there was much more to see, so we took in most of the museum’s remaining exhibitions. These included the captivating, two-floor “Gay Gotham: Art & Underground Culture in New York,” a colorful testament to New York’s LGBT artists, artistic communities and networks from the 1910s through the mid-1990s; “Activist New York,” which touches on topics as diverse as women’s suffrage to religious freedom after 9/11; and, finally, that truly spectacular permanent exhibition devoted to “Gilded New York.” This treasure trove of fashion, jewelry, portraits and more – its debut featured in WAG’s December 2013 issue – brings to life how New York’s elite lived in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries.

With a charming café and not one but two gifts shops also on site, the museum offers, as they say, something for everyone – and we left promising not to let so much time again pass between visits.

Museum of the City of New York is at 1220 Fifth Ave. (at 104th Street). For more, visit mcny.org.

– Mary Shustack

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