This Saturday, the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) will reopen its renovated fourth floor, with new spaces devoted to women’s history, Tiffany lamps, silverwork, and landmark objects. The Center for Women’s History, which debuted in March with an exhibition on Dolley Madison, leads into the Gallery of Tiffany Lamps, where the long-overlooked contributions of Clara Driscoll, who headed the Tiffany Studios Women’s Glass Cutting Department and designed turn-of-the-century icons like the Dragonfly and Wisteria lamps, are illuminated. At the end of a hall lined with rare silver pieces and a “Women’s Voices” touchscreen is the North Gallery for permanent collection highlights. There, you can discover Driscoll’s design for a women’s bicycling outfit, an emblem of mobility and freedom in the 19th century, realized in cloth.
The redesign of the society’s fourth-floor Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture received major public funding from the City of New York and New York State. At the preview, Kathy Hochul, lieutenant governor of New York State, stated that visitors “can now see that women’s voices and the credit they deserve have been masked, and now that mask comes off.”
Designed by Eva Jiřičná Architects, the 4,800-square-foot Gallery of Tiffany Lamps has a glass staircase to a second floor and winding glass walls. One hundred Tiffany lamps are on view, with Driscoll’s career featured throughout. You can even try your hand as one of her glass-cutting employees — nicknamed the “Tiffany Girls” — at an interactive station where touching metal cutouts adds colors to a clear Dragonfly shade.
Many of the items spotlighted on the fourth floor will be familiar to regular museum visitors, as Driscoll’s work was highlighted in the 2007 A New Light on Tiffany, and last year’s The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman celebrated the collectors whose 15,000 objects arrived at N-YHS in 1937. Yet the reinstallation encourages new narratives. Elie Nadelman’s “The Four Seasons” (1912) dance in terra-cotta on the stairway leading to the fourth floor, while hanging on the second is Picasso’s “Le Tricorne” (1919) curtain, which was displayed at the Four Seasons restaurant for more than 50 years. A chair by Mies van der Rohe from the shuttered Four Seasons presides over the North Gallery.
Mike Thornton, associate curator of material culture, told me that N-YHS is “the city’s reliquary of its memory” and the reinstallation is about “getting people to look at material objects in unexpected ways.” He noted that, in addition to the artifacts showcased in 15 themed niches — from “Port,” with model ships and harbor paintings, to “Infrastructure,” with a 1904 gargoyle and a 1980 Central Park trash can — there are over 600 pages of content accessible on the digital screens.
For example, after you gaze at the display of life and death masks used in phrenology, you can find details of the 19th-century experiments of Fowler and Wells on an adjacent screen. Pulling up the portrait of indigenous leader Black Hawk shows an animation over his skull, citing indications of “firmness” and “self-esteem,” along with supposed markers that he was “savage” and “cruel.” Colonialism, quack medicine, and sculpture all collide in this one plaster head.
Maeve Hogan, a curatorial associate who worked on the North Gallery glass and ceramic installations, showed me several connections within one tower of objects. Older jugs at the top all have views of New York City, while a central display lower down focuses on modern and contemporary art. Scenes of General Lafayette arriving in the harbor adorn a historic vessel; a more recent ceramic tray by Paul Scott depicts the local nuclear power plant, Indian Point. Its blue and white color scheme echoes the transferware in a case above.
A touchscreen at the base of this array brings up 3D scans, so you can look at the back of a plate and see a collector’s label or peer inside a clay pot. “You can almost take it down off the shelf yourself,” Hogan said. Photographs and videos visualizing the objects’ creation are also available, as well as related artifacts that may not be on view. “It gives an impression of the life of these objects before they came to the museum,” she added.
The Museum of the City of New York recently opened its sprawling New York at Its Core exhibition, with 8,000 square feet of local history, so another Manhattan installation devoted to our urban life may seem like overkill. The N-YHS fourth floor, however, is much more about the material legacies of the objects and their place in a broader cultural narrative. As a large video screen proclaims at the entrance to the North Gallery: “Objects Tell Stories.” Although it’s impossible for one museum to offer a comprehensive journey through New York City’s past, the new fourth floor adds tactile and complex context to the story.
The fourth floor of the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) reopens on April 29.