I finally made it up to the Museum of the City of New York yesterday, which I hadn’t visited in a very long time. The impetus was provided by my father-in-law, who was visiting from out of town — isn’t that always the way? In light of the “Lost New York” conference that Bryan and I are planning for the first weekend of October at NYU, several of the exhibits held a special interest for me. The first was the ongoing exhibit on “Trade,” which traces the rise and fall of the port of New York and features wonderful wooden models of old sailing ships.
Two special exhibitions, however, are particularly worth visiting in this year of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s first visit to New York. The first is Mannahatta/Manhattan, which presents a natural history of the island from 1609 to the present. A 3D topographical map with a projected overlay of rivers and forests gives at the center of the exhibition gives you a real sense of how hilly the island was originally (a fact underscored by the walk from the 103rd St subway station, which takes you under the Metro-North el). My kids loved the computer program that allowed you to move from a present-day Google Maps aerial view of the city to a simulated aerial view of the city in 1609, which enabled them to watch our neighborhood transformed back to its woody state of 400 years ago. My favorite insight, perhaps, was the idea that the topography of today’s Times Square (a meeting place of streams) made it a crossroads even then. Mannahatta/Manhattan runs through October 12.
From there you can go to the exhibition Amsterdam/New Amsterdam, which traces the rise of the city after Hudson’s arrival. The exhibition hall is about the length of Hudson ship, the Half Moon, and the exhibits are hung on displays that are arranged to suggests its outlines, complete with a prow. Although the introductory blurb highglights the idea that New Amsterdam “came to exhibit a comon spirit with the American city it would become — marked by unusual diversity, economic innovation, and contentious politics,” the exhibition does a good job of showing that these politics were more about more than economics and included moments of religious intolerance that have something in common with the colonies up north in New England. The exhibit closes on September 27.