Despite the fact that New York City is home to a bevy of world-class museums, several of which are devoted exclusively to the city itself, there isn’t one place where you can go to see how New York became New York, all in one cohesive experience. But that all changes today, when the Museum of the City of New York opens “New York at its Core,” a new permanent exhibit devoted to NYC’s long and tumultuous past, and its even more challenging future.
With a collection that includes hundreds of thousands of items, the task of figuring out how to showcase New York’s history was never going to be easy. “We had to be radically selective in choosing the objects and stories to tell,” says chief curator Sarah Henry, who’s been working on this exhibit for the past several years.
Guiding the process were four keywords that Henry and her team identified as the backbone of New York’s story: money, diversity, density, and creativity. And it makes sense: New York has long been one of the financial capitals of the world (there’s money), with one of the most diverse populations in the country (duh), all smushed together into just over 300 square miles of land.
“Our argument is that these three qualities—money, diversity, and density—interacting together, all of these striving people from different parts of the world bumping up against each other in this small place, has created the signature creativity that defines New York,” says Henry. “That’s the palpable energy that people recognize as one of the fundamental characteristics of New York.”
But rather than making this a static exhibit that seeks to simply preserve the city in amber, Henry and her team decided to make the present and future of New York as large a component, if not larger, than the past. To do that, they created the Future City Lab, an interactive section devoted to—as the name suggests—what lies ahead for the five boroughs.
The lab uses engaging visuals to explore five different issues of increasing importance to New Yorkers: housing, the environment, transit, jobs, and “living together”—i.e., diversity—that tie into the exhibit’s four main themes. To offer a better understanding of how these issues intersect, there are interactive screens that let you gamify New York, to an extent. One point lets visitors construct an apartment, for example, and see how different choices—materials, amenities, and the like—affect factors like affordability and eco-friendliness. (The lab, like all of the digital elements in the exhibit, was created by NYC firm Local Projects.)
“The city will not continue to be as it is now,” Henry notes. “It has always been changing, and it will continue to change. But the direction of that change is contingent on the choices people make now.” The future lab, then, is a way for people to explore how those choices—in the types of housing that are created, or how the city responds to environmental issues like rising waters—may affect the New Yorkers of the future.
The history-focused sections also have similar digital elements, all of which serve to tell more of the “diverse story of New York,” as Henry puts it, one that focuses on the lives of the people who call New York home. One section of the exhibit has different “totems” that feature the stories of different New Yorkers: Alexander Hamilton, Emily Roebling, even an oyster, whose role in the city’s development cannot be overstated. Digital maps placed throughout show how New York’s population has exploded since the first Dutch settlers arrived in the 17th century.
There’s even a section where visitors can “meet” digital re-creations of New York characters, from the larger-than-life (Jay Z, Bella Abzug, Robert Moses) to the lesser-known (Susie Rocco, an Italian immigrant who isn’t famous at all). “That’s an opportunity for intrigue and surprise for people, if they know a lot about the city of very little,” notes Henry. And of course, there are thousands of artifacts on view: everything from a section of water pipe from the 18th century, to the first subway ticket sold in 1904, to a guest list from a 1978 party at Studio 54.
If this sounds like a lot to take in, well, it is; but that’s kind of the point. The galleries, particularly the Future City Lab, will shift and change as time (and New York) progresses, meaning there’ll be plenty of opportunities to come back and re-evaluate where the city is at now. And Henry, at least, hopes it’s an exhibit that people will revisit time and time again—both to explore the stories of the city, but, in her words, “to think about what is it that makes New York, New York.”