One picture started it all. Sadly it is not a picture I can show you here, but I still see it in my mind’s eye. It is of a lone standing house (the oldest in Brooklyn), on a vacant lot, from the 1800s, it is two stories, and has held up pretty good for its age. The neighborhood is becoming pretty trendy around it (Caroll Gardens) but there it sits as a reminder of what was. I hear they are trying to tear it down and build a Whole Foods but that hasn’t worked out so far thankfully.
When I laid my eyes this photo in Time Out magazine advertising the exhibit at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library, it was so familiar yet something I could not place. I had to look it up to realize that it was a location I had passed hundreds of times and has looked the same for many, many years. The power of that simple picture sent me onto explore a new location that I was always destined to visit. It was amazing I had not been there before.
I had been meaning to come for months strategically planning the perfect date to overlap all of the exhibits I wanted to see at once. This was like playing twister in my mind. I had to actually make a list, writing down a cheat sheet of what I wanted to see, when they were opening, and closing so that I could visually see when I should go. It pretty much boiled down to one specific date in late February.
Once I had gotten over my excitement over the neighborhood and enjoying what a beautiful day it was, the first in such a long time, I knew spring was coming soon and I was ready to move on. I love that kind of weather it makes you hopeful and eager to see what adventures await you (to see what await me check back tomorrow). As I crossed the street I was greeted by an amazing statute of Frederick Douglas.
Naturally I stood in the street trying to obtain the perfect photo without any passerby’s in my way. Just after I got my wish, a patron that was leaving the facility had the nerve to ask if I knew who I was taking a photo of and why he was there. I had to ground myself from smacking an old man on an otherwise perfect Friday afternoon. Plus you know there were other witnesses on the street. I just replied “of course but thanks for the history lesson”. I am afraid that is the best I could do.
Now since I am not as rude as some people I will explain why Mr. Douglass is at one entrance and our former sixteenth President, Mr. Abraham Lincoln stands guard at the main entrance.
In 2011 the Society was reopening after a major renovation and wanted to find figures that represented all that would be included in the education, representation, and artwork that would be presented in all future exhibits. That also included unpleasant parts of our past such as slavery. Mr. Douglass obtained his freedom in N.Y.C. in 1838. What is even greater is that these two men, who knew in each in life, now remain together in the afterlife.
All totaled the Society has four enormous floors filled to the brim with more objects varied in topic, range, and scope than you can fathom.
Next on the list was the hall filled with artwork and relics from the Revolutionary War and time period. I am always a sucker for that. I cannot believe we have anything left from that era and it gives me goose bumps.
On the opposite side of the wall was much of the same but the theme was much closer to home. These were keepsakes from September 11, 2001. Just looking at the pictures and images brings it all flooding back. After a few minutes of that I had to move on.
That must mean something. I could stare at it forever. I am so in awe of it and that it is there for me to revere and that only a piece of glass separate me and Abraham Lincoln’s signature. Another great reason he should be outside.
Among my list of must see exhibits were definitely the one with a new take on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The artist went around the country and composed many works of art based on all of the images he found on the late civil rights activist. It was so unlike anything I have ever seen depicting Dr. King. However I think it was too much for my taste. The bright colors and paintings that popped out with their imagery reminded me of Andy Warhol’s work, not because of their appearance but with their boldness.
Second to last I went to see the photography exhibit containing New York City landmarks. This again was a main reason I was here. This is where the photograph I mentioned at the very beginning of this post would be. While I enjoyed each and every one, I did find myself racing through to find the one that had started it all. Of course it was dead last. As I caught my breath and began reviewing more careful the other pictures I had skimmed I had only one real thought: I could have taken most of these photos. That is not to boost my ego or to say that these were not great works. But they were black and white and mostly from reasonable recent times. I in fact have similar photos in my personal collection and with slightly better equipment and the right angle and transportation I could easily manage these shots.
As this journey began with one photo, this visit too ends with one very distinct visual in my mind. I can’t help but be overcome with that looming, overbearing, shocking, yet grand storage-ish top floor. That first step out of the elevator had me talking out loud, admittedly I thought to myself until I saw the security guard looking at me like I was insane with disbelief. It still captivates my mind conjuring up what an attic in an old mansion would look like if you had been collecting trinkets of all types over the course of a lifetime. It was a creepy yet awesome experience being around glass cases, some filled with such large treasures like antique furniture and instruments while just down the corridor there were items as toy trains and jewelry.
After having explored this museum from bottom to top, my job here was complete, well at least until I told you about it. I was satisfied at having finally been able to cross this off my to-do list. I have gone to historical societies in other cities and found it shameful I had not seen my own. It is always the irony of travelers I suppose. That we don’t stop to appreciate the immense beauty in our own back yard that millions come here to see, as we are breaking our necks to go out into the great beyond.
Historical societies are so interesting to me because they capture the knowledge, tradition, and local grandeur of place no matter how big or small. It is preserving it for you and waiting there until you are ready to see it. It is passed on from one generation from the next and many new things are being added all the time. One of the best qualities is that you don’t have to worry about traveling very far to have an experience like I did. Just about every city, town, and suburb has a historic society with its own treasure-troves. Preservation is so important because as we all know “if we do not learn from history we are destined to repeat it”. It is also a great way to connect with our ancestors and the places we call home.
For more information on those chosen to adorn the outside of the historical society:
For more information on these exhibits: