The New-York Historical Society’s fourth floor recently debuted its new look…
Formerly open collections storage, this floor has been repurposed into four parts: selected thematic collections, silver, women’s history, and Tiffany lamps. I recently had the opportunity to see this facelift at the Society’s preview event and have mixed feelings about the changes.
The former open collections storage will always have a special place in my heart because it was here that I discovered the moustache comb that inspired my research interests. That comb does not fit the museum’s new, thematic displays and is now one of several objects in off-site storage. What remains are a selection of objects arranged in little vignettes like “recreation” and “New York at war.”
I overheard one of the staff members explain that, unlike with the open collections storage, this allows the museum to tell stories with select objects. Basically, the museum tells visitors what to learn. I understand the motive, but if the motive is storytelling, isn’t that what rotating exhibitions are for? And is this really the best way to showcase the collection? The displays looked nice enough and were complimented with digital components, but I kept thinking, “I want to see more objects!”
The highlight of museum’s transformation is definitely the new Tiffany section. Previously, the Society’s impressive collection of lamps was pushed into one corned of the open collections storage. Now they have a whole wing! This section occupies two levels and everything is arranged to allow viewing from multiple angles. Center displays allow one to circle the lamps and the second level allows one to appreciate the top of what’s displayed below.
There is also a fun, interactive feature where you can design your own lamp:
I did not have the chance to properly assess the new center for women’s history, but from what I could tell, it was like the best really was saved for last! This installation seems by far the most interesting and I intend to return and give a full report.
Overall, the fourth floor makeover has received mixed reviews. Some people love it, some people hate it. I…I’ll admit I’m impressed but…more objects, please!
May 3, 2017 at 2:08 pm
That’s exactly how I feel when museums redo things, and then hide all the neat objects somewhere. In fact, I’ve got a review of the National Army Museum coming out in a few weeks that says pretty much exactly that! What is the point of acquiring interesting artefacts if no one ever gets to see them?! I do love those TIffany lamps though!
May 3, 2017 at 10:17 pm
I know, right?! It’s so sad. I like how open collections storage has kinda become a thing in a bunch of museums and the one at NYHS was one of my favorites. There was always a reason to go back since every time something new might catch my eye. The Tiffany lamps are gorgeous and it’s nice that they have their own wing. Looking forward to your review of the National Army Museum!
May 5, 2017 at 9:02 am
I haven’t yet visited, but I have two and a half preliminary thoughts. 1-1.5) The Queens Museum already has a very impressive collection of Tiffany lamps. Did NYC need another? (Though the interpretation at NYHS seems superior from your photos!) Also, do we need to see 100 Tiffany lamps? I do like them very much, but I’m not a fan of monographic shows on a large scale. I have a long attention span, but I find it a bit fatiguing! 2)The vignettes seem weird. I’ll hold off true judgement until I see them personally, but the idea seems a bit like the outdated dioramas at natural history museums…and worse, it gives me the sense that they are trying to compensate for the NY at its Core exhibit (which I also haven’t seen yet, let’s go!) at MCNY (which seems to be a sort of thematically redundant museum with NYHS???)
May 6, 2017 at 2:36 pm
Excellent points. The vignettes are weird and Laura made the same comparison to outdated natural history museums – they’re just dressed up with digital features. Sure, let’s go to MCNY! I haven’t been there in a while. I see what you mean about it seeming thematically redundant, but I feel like there are a lot of thematically redundant museums in the city…just thinking of how many modern art museums there are. Anyway, this reminds me that I really should update my calendar and see what exhibitions are coming up!