Cyrus and I spent the entire day today with a group of really interesting folks — several of whom had written books I own and sometimes teach — powwowing with the directors of the South Street Seaport Museum about their institution and its possible future directions.

No word on that project now: this was a very preliminary conversation about changes that will be years in the making if enacted. But I left feeling hopeful about a museum I’m very fond of — especially the buildings it inhabits and the boats it owns — and having had a nice day talking to smart people who care about a lot of the same stuff I do.

But here’s the part I really wanted to crow about: I need to go back, because we really only had a couple minutes to run through it, but the big new exhibition they’ve just installed for the Henry Hudson 400 looked absolutely fantastic. Co-sponsored by the Dutch National Archives, the show, “New Amsterdam: Island at the Center of the World” has all sorts of treasures on loan, some of which will be familiar to people who’ve read even a small amount of illustrated New York history. One of the big draws, certainly, will be what some have called New York’s “birth certificate,” also known as the “Schaghenbrief” or Schaghen letter. It’s the letter home to Holland that notes the purchase of the island of Manhattan for the equivalent of 24 dollars. A steal of a real estate deal or colonialist exploitation? You decide.

The show is named, obviously, for Russell Shorto’s deservedly popular history of New Amsterdam, which works well in the undergraduate classroom and is a lot of fun to read, in part for its relentlessly and self-consciously anachronistic narration: references to New Amsterdam’s “bar scene” for example, or — my favorite — to Peter Stuyvesant’s Giuliani-like “quality of life initiatives.” We were fortunate to have Shorto himself walking us through and pointing out highlights.

So many other pretty pieces of paper. Like this one, a view of “Amboina,” or Ambon Island, the HQ for the Dutch East India Company in the 1610s:


I was also smitten with the original of the Castello Plan — a map made just before the turn-over to the English in 1664 — on loan from the Italian House of Medici. Shorto pointed out that it would have been colored, originally, like the image above, had the Medicis not left it exposed to sunlight.

All afternoon I’ve been contemplating the prospect of a New Amsterdam tattoo …


The show — which seems to overlap pretty significantly with the one that was on display in Amsterdam earlier this year, titled “Return to Manhattan” — will be at the Seaport Museum through Jan 3, 2010.