The Museum of the City of New York’s new permanent exhibition is a must-see destination for those who love New York City.
“New York at Its Core,” a tour-de-force exploration of 400 years of history, is filled with a stunning array of artifacts and memorabilia, as a recent visit proves in encompassing detail.
It sounds 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.”
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 somberly walk through the Depression before continuing the journey. A Look magazine spread on Lincoln Center calls the then-new complex “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, and 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 meet “Sesame Street” and Patti Smith, the politics of Ronald Reagan, the devastation of the AIDS epidemic and experience New York’s “New Gilded Age,” illustrated by elements including a storyboard for the movie “Wall Street.” Sobering moments include looks at 9/11 and the social strife of Occupy Wall Street, leading up to the exhibition’s final focus year, 2012, which includes the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.
In the last gallery, “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, reflecting on the equally sweeping — and rewarding — exhibition.
With the stately building also including a light-filled café and not one but two museum shops, Museum of the City of New York — and “New York at Its Core” — offers a most enjoyable and thought-provoking way to celebrate a love of the city.
Museum of the City of New York is at 1220 Fifth Ave. (at 103rd Street). For more, visit mcny.org.