Museum of the City of New York

The Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation. Founded in 1923 as a private, nonprofit corporation, the Museum connects the past, present, and future of New York City. It serves the people of New York and visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications, and collections.

Internship Spring 2013

Maggie Lee: I spent the semester looking at the way that visitors use the semi-permanent exhibition, Activist New York through surveys and observation; studying visitor use of the interactive kiosks in the gallery through contacting the organizations who are listed therein.

As the Museum of the City of New York works on a plan to create a permanent exhibition about the history of New York City, it will be important to understand how visitors use different exhibitions. Activist New York exhibition focuses on activism that has taken place in New York City through fourteen case studies across city history, from the Dutch Settlers to the Park51 Debate. It utilizes a variety of different exhibit elements: text, images, artifacts, video and interactive technology. The wide range of history covered by the exhibition and the mix of mediums used makes Activist New York an excellent example of how visitors might use a future exhibit that shows a survey of New York history.

Through conducting short surveys as visitors exit the gallery, I have been able to gather immediate responses to the exhibition. Most visitors respond that they find the text very clear and that they come away with a new understanding of the way that activists have shaped New York City and the nation. Visitors were asked to identify the part of the exhibition that was most interesting to them and responses are fairly even across the board; different case studies speak to different visitors.

I have also been in touch with some of the organizations that participated in the interactive kiosks within the exhibition. The kiosks face the case study which looks at a similar theme. For example, Nativist reactions to immigrants in the nineteenth century faces a kiosk which offers information about contemporary activist organizations that help immigrants today. I have reached out to these organizations to find out what kinds of responses and messages they have received from MCNY visitors.

Finally, I have worked on increasing postings to the Activist New York blog. The exhibition’s online component showcases photo of activism ongoing in New York City and a selection of these pictures are projected onto the back wall of the gallery. Over the past couple of months, I have invited various organizations and groups across the city to post photos on the blog. In addition to generating posts for the site, this has allowed me to learn about some of the amazing activism that is done in New York today, including the incredible work done by various groups and individuals to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Internship Spring 2011

Katie Ehrlich: gathering research materials for a 2012 exhibition on the history of Staten Island and building the framework for an companion web site that will enable users to interact with the exhibit content using maps spanning the borough’s history.

“Rethinking the Suburb”

I always thought suburbia was a 20th century notion. Apparently I was not the only one. The earliest conception of the Museum of the City of New York’s From Farm to City: Staten Island 1661-2012 exhibition ran with this assumption, placing the suburbanization of Staten Island in the 1920s by the latest. Upon doing more research and talking with experts it became clear to both myself and my internship supervisor that Staten Island was first conceived of as a suburb 100 years before that. We then had to reimagine the chronology of the exhibition and the definition of the suburb.

Suburban areas popped up on Staten Island as early as 1814. Suburban hamlets emerged around rail stations and ferry landings. By the 1870s experts put forth a plan for Staten Island that “present[ed] the largest number of sites for dwellings, furnished with urban public conveniences and associated with permanent and generally available advantages of landscape and sylvan beauty, all accessible with regularity and comfort from the business quarter of New York…”(1)

Roads, rails and ferries connected Staten Island’s residents and trade products to Manhattan, but it would be a mistake to draw the kinds of modern day parallels of commuters rushing the Staten Island Ferry terminals this image conjures up. Nineteenth century commuters were not of the daily kind, but Staten Island was nevertheless a suburb. These modes of transportation simply facilitated travel to Manhattan, Long Island and New Jersey, where residents had business dealings.

The island’s natural beauty and vistas also attracted the wealthy, who built large homes and patronized lavish resorts and hotels. This dynamic was also part of the 19th century definition of the suburb. In other words, 19th century Staten Island could be thought of as today’s Hamptons.

Today Staten Island is considered the city’s most suburban borough with vast developments of single-family homes. It is more car-oriented and spacious than Queens, the Bronx or Brooklyn. Staten Islanders have the longest commute in the nation. They spend an average of 42.5 minutes traveling each way to work, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. (2)  The long commute is one of the hallmarks of the suburbs. For the 19thcentury Staten Island commuter it would have been even longer.

Photo: Beers’ new map of Staten Island: From Careful Surveys (1887). The Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

1) Staten Island Improvement Commission, Report of a Preliminary Scheme of Improvements: Presented January 12th, 1871. (New York: James Sutton & Co., Printers and Stationers, 1871). 57.

2) Deborah Young, “Staten Islanders Still Have Longest Commute in Nation, Census Finds.”SIlive.comDec. 15, 2010 Accessed May 7 2011.

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