By David Bruce Smith
The Grateful American™ Foundation
Have you had the pleasure of visiting the New-York Historical Society?
With my co-host, Hope Katz Gibbs, I was happy to travel to New York City and interview Louise Mirrer, the president and CEO of the organization, who since 2004 has raised more than $100 million to honor the history of New York.
The doors of the Historical Society opened in 1804, when it was more of a club for the city’s elite. But in the 200 years since, it has been transformed into a thriving gallery filled with more than 60,000 artifacts that has been visited by people from around the world.
The organization is dedicated to fostering research, presenting history and art exhibitions, and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its continuing influence on today’s world.
The New-York Historical Society’s museum is the oldest in New York City and predates the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art by nearly 70 years. Its art holdings comprise more than 1.6 million works.
Among them are:
- A world-class collection of Hudson River School paintings, including major works by Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church,
- Iconic genre and history paintings including works by William Sidney Mount and Eastman Johnson,
- A vast range of American portraits, including paintings by Rembrandt Peale and Gilbert Stuart,
- All 435 of John James Audubon’s extant preparatory watercolors for “Birds of America,” and
- An encyclopedic collection of more than 800 works documenting the full range of representational sculpture in America from the colonial period to the present day.
The Museum also holds much of sculptor Elie Nadelman’s legendary American folk art collection, including furniture and household accessories such as lamps, candlesticks, textiles, glass, and ceramic objects, as well as paintings, toys, weathervanes, sculptural woodcarvings, and chalkware.
Scroll down for our Q&A with Mirrer to learn more about this dynamic organization. — DBS
David Bruce Smith: Tell us about the genesis of the New-York Historical Society.
Louise Mirrer: The New-York Historical Society (NYHS) was founded at a time when artifacts were considered to be treasures, and the public was considered to consist of people who would ruin them if allowed to come near them.
The NYHS building was built in 1904 by architects who built banks all over New York. So it was designed as a vault, with the goal of keeping the treasures locked inside where they would be safe from the public.
Amazingly, it wasn’t until 2004 that business leaders started to think that this approach was not consistent with how we felt about the history of New York. Rather, we felt history should be available to everyone — open to the public. This new vision was spearheaded by a group of very smart people, and philanthropist and builder/developer Robert H. Smith was key among them. He and his colleagues began to imagine how history could be offered to the public.
That’s when I became part of the project, and it took until November 2011 to take that vision and turn it into the physical space you see today. There is a lot of glass on our first floor, and it is open to Central Park West. So anyone passing — by day or night — can look in and see the beauty of American history.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us more about the collection. I saw a gorgeous Tiffany collection upstairs, as well as hundreds of artifacts from the Revolutionary War, among other fascinating items.
Louise Mirrer: Yes, the Tiffany collection is wonderful. It is actually a great New York story. Louis Comfort Tiffany was a brilliant designer, marketer, and commercial success who also believed that women were closer to nature than men. He broke with tradition and employed a team of talented woman designers and artisans. In fact, one of the most famous Tiffany lamps — the Dragonfly Lamp — was designed by Clara Driscoll.
Our Tiffany collection is one of the largest, most beautiful collections in the world. Not only are we able to show off the gorgeous lamps, but we are able to tell a story that very few institutions can tell, certainly not on a permanent bases. That is the story of women’s history, because creating these lamps provided opportunities in New York for women that no other place in the world offered.
David Bruce Smith: Can you talk about some of the other collections that you have — including some of the portraits?
Louise Mirrer: We do indeed have an amazing quantity of items, including portraits in the gallery where we’re sitting now. And we haven’t even touched on our great library. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and our objects tell many, many thousands of words.
At any given time we probably have around 60,000 objects from our museum collection. Those range from some very old artifacts to some recent history. For example in our floor case you can find a 16th century arrowhead, and there is a door from a firetruck that was torn apart during the 9/11 attacks.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Does the collection continuously change?
Louise Mirrer: It does, and that’s because we are a thriving breathing institution the focuses on history — and the fact is that history changes every day.
One of the most important things to us, and it’s very evident in our Smith gallery on the 3rd floor, is that we have agency. As individuals, we all have agency to make history change. That is how history is made. Our collections have to keep up with the changing times, and we are very proud of the fact that they do.
About the Grateful American™ Series
The Grateful American™ Series is an interactive, multimedia educational project created by the Grateful American™ Foundation. The brainchild of DC-based author and publisher David Bruce Smith, it is designed to restore enthusiasm in American history for kids and adults.
Its website, which launched on July 4, 2014, is updated each month with articles, radio podcasts, and TV episodes featuring interviews with the directors of popular presidential and historic homes, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Learn more about the Grateful American™ Foundation at www.gratefulamericanfoundation.com.