Q&A with Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of New-York Historical Society

THIRTEEN recently spoke with Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of New-York Historical Society, which is highlighted in the third episode of Treasures of New York, airing this Thursday, December 15 at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN. The program also airs on Monday, December 19 at 10 p.m. on NJTV and Tuesday, December 20 at 10:30 p.m. on WLIW21.

Here, Ms. Mirrer discusses the society’s transformation, from its beginnings over 200 years ago to the innovative modern space that it is today, and explains what sets New-York Historical Society apart as a genuine treasure of New York.

Enter to win passes to New-York Historical Society, and learn more about upcoming events at the society on NYC ARTS.

Can you discuss how New-York Historical Society has transformed over the years — particularly how the recent renovation has opened the space up to new visitors and more interactive exhibits?

The New-York Historical Society has re-imagined its landmark building as an engaging and enjoyable space where visitors can learn about the ideals of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded, while understanding that it would take many years and a civil war before these ideals were fully realized.

As I walk through the dazzling, new spaces of our landmark building, past clusters of children looking for clues to the past in our brand-new DiMenna Children’s History Museum, and electronically turning the pages of nineteenth-century children’s books in our Barbara K. Lipman Children’s History Library, I think back over 207 years of institutional history and am amazed at the changes that have taken place since a small group of historically-minded citizens gathered at New York’s old City Hall on November 20, 1804 to found the New-York Historical Society, which became New York’s first museum.

We have reintroduced ourselves to the public as New York’s home for American history, where treasures and resources are available to people of all ages who engage in and enjoy the stories of the past told by our more than ten million objects, paintings, documents, photographs, books and maps, now magically enhanced by the power of new technologies.

Why did New-York Historical Society decide to keep the hyphen in its name?

The placement of a hyphen between “New” and York” was common usage during our founding in 1804. Even as this custom began to abate in the decades that followed, hyphens were routinely maintained on title pages of books and mastheads of newspapers into the 1840s, while The New York Times held on to its hyphen until 1896. The organization used and has retained the hyphenated version of the city’s name that was common at the time. In vigilantly fighting for its hyphen, The New-York Historical Society highlights the continuity of its role in the cultural and educational life of the city.

What materials in the New-York Historical Society’s collection do you think best represent New York and its rich history?

Our collections represent American history through the lens of New York. The New-York Historical Society holds a vast collection of objects and images that encompass the long history and diverse artistic voices of New York’s population. The Museum holds nearly five hundred of John James Audubon’s watercolors, one of the nation’s preeminent collections of Hudson River School landscapes, and decorative arts holdings that include rare and iconic examples of Tiffany lamps. Many of these are on view in our new Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History. They range in time from an Indian arrowhead from 1500-1650 that was excavated at Revolutionary War barracks to the ceiling from Keith Haring’s Pop Shop, which opened in SoHo in 1986.

What makes New-York Historical Society so different from other institutions and museums with American History collections?

N-YHS Conservator Alan Balicki digitizing the Lansing Notebooks. (Photo by Michael Pruitt-Bruun)

Our goal is to make history matter. We change the people who come to us, whether they’re schoolchildren or scholars, by giving them fresh, profound, meaningful connections to the past. We help our visitors make sense of the changes happening in their own times, by illuminating the processes of change that ran through earlier eras. Our collections allow us to serve in this way.

We have one of the great libraries of the world, with holdings such as John Lansing’s Constitutional Convention Notebooks as well as other documents related to the founding of the country. These documents enrich our knowledge of the debates and compromises that helped forge the foundational document of the United States. To remind you, John Lansing, Jr. served as a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention. His detailed notes from the convention, taken surreptitiously, are on view here for the public to see.

What do you think makes New-York Historical Society a treasure of New York?

The New-York Historical Society really epitomizes the American dream and all the possibilities that the New World has offered from the earliest times to the present. This is evidenced in our public programs, our exhibitions and our education initiatives.

Our vibrant Bernard and Irene Schwartz Distinguished Speakers Series improves our ability to confront the challenges of today. We have featured such luminaries as Clyde Haberman, E.L. Doctorow, James O. Horton, Toni Morrison, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Antonin Scalia, former Mayor Ed Koch, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Walter Isaacson, Gloria Steinem, Josiah Bunting III, Niall Ferguson and many, many others.

Our new DiMenna Children’s History Museum is certainly a treasure. We have created a resource unlike any other. Here our youngest visitors can discover their connection to the past, and the thrill of discovery is at the heart of the practice of history.

Our new installations in the Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History shows the city as central to the American struggle for freedom and equality from the start, beginning with New Amsterdam’s respect for religious difference and continuing through to the present day, with the United Nations headquarters, for example.

New York Story, our panoramic orientation film narrated by native New Yorker Liev Schreiber, gives you this history in eighteen minutes. This is a treasure every New Yorker and tourist should see.

What does the future hold for New-York Historical Society?

Everything we do here—our exhibitions, installations, public programs—shows history as exciting, dynamic and consequential to our present. What we want to convey to our visitors going forward is that we are an institution which seeks to engage our visitors in difficult, complex and sometimes unresolved issues, provoking them to think differently about the past.