Published: January 16, 2001
The New-York Historical Society Opens The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture
NEW YORK CITY – For years the New-York Historical Society has been able to exhibit only small portions of its vast museum holdings at any one time. Freed from the confines of off-site storage, nearly two-thirds of the collection – some 40,000 rdf_Descriptions – have found a new home at The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture.
The center occupies the entire fourth floor of the society’s landmark building on Central Park West. Designed by the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle, its innovative design transcends existing examples of open storage, combining a vast array of objects in many levels of guided access to evoke insights into 400 years of American life and culture. Seventeen thousand square feet previously used as gallery space, long closed to the public, has been transformed into a continuous gallery. Rows of object-laden shelves separate public and staff areas throughout the Luce Center, but the line between these areas is barely discernible.
The center, made possible largely by a $7.5 million grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, represents a new way to connect to the power of the past. Paintings and sculpture, home furnishings and clothing, toys and tools, artifacts and ephemera are arranged to usher visitors on an intriguing pathway into history. Long unseen, these objects together in interpretive displays offer a framework of ideas, inspiring each viewer to make connections among them. From a simple cloth doll worn down by a child’s love to the multicolored magnificence of 135 Tiffany lamps, the center has installed a matchless collection of rdf_Descriptions, elegant and everyday, that define four centuries of American life.
Densely displayed objects are arrayed by type behind glass. Paintings are suspended in cases, also behind glass. Objects too light-sensitive for continuous display are stored in areas accessible to visitors by appointment. All storage and display areas, however, are visible, offering a “behind-the-scenes” look at the museum’s collections. A mezzanine provides an additional level of display for the more intimate rdf_Descriptions in the museum’s collection. Indeed, the only interruptions to the flow of display space are an orientation gallery, a skylight seating area, and an object examination room.
While the fourth floor is the ultimate destination point, a visitor’s encounter with the Luce Center begins in the society’s entrance rotunda, where a floor plan and information kiosk locate the center in the building. First and second floor galleries continue to feature exhibitions drawn from the collections newly housed in the center.
There are six unique exhibit stations, each exploring particular themes through a carefully selected arrangement of diverse objects, and providing a less orthodox – and deeply rewarding – means of understanding them. Subjects include “Leaving a Legacy,” “Home Decorating,” “Tools,” “Talent and Trade,” “Signaling Intentions,” “Collecting,” and “Strolling Down the Avenue.” Audio tours guide visitors through the collection.
A large interactive relief map helps visitors navigate the center and locate rdf_Descriptions of interest. These include paintings and sculpture in The Robert Lehman Gallery of American Sculpture, furniture, tools for home and trade, Tiffany lamps, historic home furnishings, and collections on the Mezzanine.
Collection perspectives include hand-held information panels that put groups in context by telling the stories behind selected objects, describing particular craft or manufacturing techniques, and sharing behind-the-scenes information about their conservation and preservation.
Docent-led tours are available and visitor services staff welcome visitors, answer questions, and assist in location of materials and the reference and research workstations located throughout the center.
These materials can also assist the focused visitor or research scholar, who will in addition benefit from individual accession numbers and information labels for each object or group of objects; reference and research computers, which provide two levels of detailed information for the objects and facilitate searches; and an object examination room for serious research by appointment.
Strategically placed throughout the center, special exhibits developed in conjunction with American History Workshop explore themes related to the collections through a carefully selected arrangement of diverse objects. Each of the six evocative displays suggests a different way to look at and understand objects, moving the visitor to complex, intimate glimpses at enduring traditions of eras long past.
For example, the objects on view in “Leaving a Legacy” illuminate the ways in which the lives and values of departed loved ones are communicated through gifts and personal possessions that are bequeathed from one generation to the next. Many rdf_Descriptions in the center have such a heritage.
The material on display, augmented by audio and lighting, includes a late Eighteenth Century mahogany and pine cradle, used for nearly 200 years by the children of New York’s Verplanck family; a beverage service made in China in 1785 for an aide of General George Washington and passed down through many generations of his family; and a silver cake dish forged by William Forbes in the late Eighteenth Century, engraved for several generations of the Maitland and Belknap families. A green glass bottle, labeled and dated 1819, that once held mushroom catsup, was given to The New-York Historical Society by a descendant of the cook herself.
While these rdf_Descriptions are considered to be a disconnected grouping of objects anywhere else, at the Luce Center they have particular resonance as heirlooms lovingly preserved by families. They invite visitors to explore the concept of “legacy.” How is an heirloom a reflection of what mattered to its various owners? Of a cherished experience? Of wealth and substance? Of love? This is history at its most personal – and its most poignant.
Other special exhibit stations include “Home Decorating,” which explores the ways in which objects impress or create a “look” for houses and apartments, exemplified by the lamps and other objects manufactured and sold by Tiffany Studios. “Tools, Talent, and Trade,” focuses on the life and work of Hudson River School artist Asher B. Durand, whose work patterns “emerge through preparatory sketches, finished paintings, and personal belongings.”
“Signaling Intentions” examines how objects such as fans and canes are used to communicate subtle but clear messages beyond their practical uses. “Collecting” considers the passions, interpretations, and associated values that drive this endlessly popular phenomenon, and which help to build such collections as that of The New-York Historical Society. “Strolling Down the Avenue” steps outside the homes and lives illustrated elsewhere in the Luce Center to provide a look at the New York City streetscape since the Seventeenth Century.
A world-famous collection of Eighteenth to Twentieth Century American painting features outstanding examples of colonial portraiture, the Hudson River School, landscape paintings, and New York views. Major work include “Flags on 57th Street” by Childe Hassam; “Donner Lake from the Summit” by Albert Bierstadt; “Portrait of Thomas Jefferson” by Rembrandt Peale; “Shrewsbury River” by John F. Kensett; “Castle Garden” by Jasper Cropsey; “Cayambe” by Fredrick Church; “The Peale Family Group” by Charles Wilson Peale; and “The Course of Empire” by Thomas Cole.
Four hundred-thirty-five original watercolors created for John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and acquired from the artist’s widow in 1863 are available for viewing. Eight hundred American portrait miniatures are in the collection.
American sculpture spanning three centuries includes the tail from an equestrian statue of George III destroyed by colonists in 1776; Houdon’s plaster bust of Thomas Jefferson; a marble bust of Alexander Hamilton by Giuseppe Ceracchi; a statue of a fireman from the top of Fireman’s Hall, New York City (circa 1850); Auguste Saint-Gaudens’s bronze “The Puritan”; and 40 life and death masks of notable Nineteenth Century Americans. Artist Elie Nadelman’s collection of American primitives, spanning every media from furniture to textiles, is also on view.
Such historic furniture pieces as George Washington’s inaugural armchair and Valley Forge camp bed; a wardrobe by Charles-Honoré Lannuier; the fireplace mantel from the Beekman Mansion, Mt Pleasant; and the desk at which Clement Clarke Moore wrote A Visit from St Nicholas are featured.
A renowned collection of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century American silver includes a presentation cup reputed to have been given to Colonel Peter Schuyler by Queen Anne (1710), a salver made in 1772 by Lewis Fueter and engraved with coat of arms of New York, a French chocolate pot, tureens presented to two naval heroes in the War of 1812, and a pair of silver pitchers presented to commemorate the act freeing slaves in New York (1817). These pieces represent only a small part of the silver presentation.
Weaponry and military artifacts include a pair of flintlock dueling pistols and a sword and scabbard presented to Captain Jacob Jones by the City of New York in 1812, John Reich’s Indian peace medals of 1801, a Civil War draft wheel, and historic flags.
Stoneware and other ceramics from New York City and State, including an early Nineteenth Century batter jug made and decorated by Clarkson Crolius; historic blue Staffordshire, many with scenes of New York State; and Chinese Export porcelain made for New York families, are in the pottery section.
Contemporary souvenirs and commemorative pieces, such as a punch bowl honoring the 1824 visit by General Lafayette, an early Nineteenth Century cross stitch sampler with an image of New York’s City Hall, and a jacquard coverlet picturing Washington’ s Capitol building in 1846 add to this vast collection.
Many one-of-a-kind rdf_Descriptions of significance include a commemorative water barrel used by New York mayor and governor De Witt Clinton at the Erie Canal opening ceremony, 1825; a portrait said to be of Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury (Governor of New York 1702-1708) dressed as a woman; an artificial leg belonging to New York patriot Gouverneur Morris, 1780; a section of the original Croton Aqueduct, which provided the first dependable water supply for New York City; and a ceramic jug representing William “Boss” Tweed and his ring trying to climb into a money pot will be on display.
Also of interest are a silver train controller handle by Tiffany & Co., used to start the first subway train in New York City, 1903; a gambling wheel used at Coney Island, early Twentieth Century; sketches of Civil War battle scenes drawn by artists for New York newspapers; the tombstone of New York printer William Bradford, circa 1752; drawings of Native Americans by Charles B.J.F. de St Memin; a builder’s model of the Civil War ironclad Monitor by Thomas Fitch Rowland, 1862; a collection of works by renowned Nineteenth Century genre sculptor John Rogers; printed cotton curtains with “The Apotheosis of Franklin,” circa 1800, used in the Beekman Mansion; and a Nineteenth Century New York City cobbler’s bench, complete with all of its original tools.
Henry Luce, III, is a distinguished journalist, publisher, and philanthropist. As chairman and CEO of the Henry Luce Foundation, he has, for more than four decades, helped promote academic opportunity, artistic expression, intellectual achievement, enlightened public policy, and international understanding.
After serving as a commissioner’s assistant to the Hoover Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch (1948-49), he reported for the Cleveland Press. He joined Time Inc. in 1951, first as a Washington correspondent and later as a staff writer, assistant to the publisher, head of the new publisher of Fortune magazine from 1968-69 and publisher of Time from 1969-72. He was on the board of Time Inc. and its successor, Time Warner Inc., for 29 years from 1967-96.
Mr Luce has served on the boards of numerous educational and nonprofit institutions, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the China Institute in America, College of Wooster, Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the New-York Historical Society, among others. For 21 years, he was president of the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Most recently he has been honored for his philanthropic activities by the American Association of Museums, the New York State County Arts Councils, the Central Park Conservancy, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Foreign Policy Association, and the St Nicholas Society. He is also president of The Pilgrims of the US.
A graduate of Yale, Henry Luce, III, holds honorary degrees from St Michael’s College, Long Island University, Pratt Institute, and the College of Wooster.
The Henry Luce Foundation was established in 1936 by the late Henry R. Luce, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc. With more than $1 billion in assets, the foundation supports programs focusing on American art, east Asia, higher education, public affairs, public policy, theology, and women in science.
A full-color book is available about the makers, users, and donors of collections displayed in the center.
The New-York Historical Society is at 2 77th Street at Central Park West. Current exhibitions include “Intimate Friends: Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and William Cullen Bryant” through February 4; “Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging”; and “Remedies for Old Age and What Else Ails You: Trade Cards from the Bella C. Landauer Collection” through March 4. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. For information, 212/873-3400 or www.nyhistory.org.
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