Celebrating a century
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Celebrating a century
A visitor to the “At Home in New York” section of the exhibition “This is New York: 100 Years of the City in Art and Pop Culture”, at the Museum of the City of New York on April 7, 2023. Occupying the entire third floor of the museum, the exhibition will be on display from May 26, 2023, through July 31, 2024. (James Estrin/The New York Times)

by Jane L. Levere

NEW YORK, NY.- You know that life in the Big Apple has changed in the last 100 years. But when was the last time you stopped to think about just how much? Or in some cases, just how little?

A new exhibition celebrating the centennial of the Museum of the City of New York will remind you.

Take for example, the commuter, Speedy, portrayed by Harold Lloyd in the 1928 silent film of the same name, and Michael Richards’ Kramer of the long-running television series “Seinfeld.” Both confront the decades-old problem of finding a satisfactory seat on a subway train, as clips of the actors’ work show.

Or consider the costumes worn by the cast in the television series “Pose,” about the city’s underground ball culture, as well as the robe and gloves worn by Robert De Niro, who starred in the film “Raging Bull,” which depicted the boxer Jake LaMotta. These characters from different eras are in their own ways synonymous with the city.

And the oldest object in the exhibition, a 1923-1924 lithograph of George Bellows’ painting “Dempsey and Firpo,” and the newest, Cheyenne Julien’s 2023 painting, “Salsa Sundays at Orchard Beach,” show how New York has inspired the creativity of countless artists over the past century.

Occupying the entire third floor of the museum — on Fifth Avenue, between 103rd and 104th streets at the top of Manhattan’s Museum Mile — the exhibition, “This is New York: 100 Years of the City in Art and Pop Culture,” will be on display from May 26, 2023, through July 31, 2024.

Among the subjects it will explore are New York’s streets and subways; its songs; its representation by artists, photographers and filmmakers; and the space of domesticity there.

The museum was founded in 1923 by Henry Collins Brown, a Scottish-born writer and preservationist. Its original goal was to appeal to children and immigrants, to focus on exhibitions and to “emphasize the lives of ordinary New Yorkers,” according to research recently published by the Gotham Center for New York City History, which is sponsored by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

It first occupied Gracie Mansion, a historic home owned by the Parks Department, today the mayor’s official residence.

In 1928 the city offered the museum the site where its current home was later built, a Georgian Colonial Revival building constructed between 1929 and 1932 and designated a landmark in 1967. It underwent a 10-year renovation and modernization project that was completed in 2015.

Today the museum’s collection includes more than 750,000 objects, ranging from paintings, prints and photographs to decorative arts, toys and theatrical memorabilia.

Among its noteworthy possessions are Eugene O’Neill’s handwritten manuscripts of some of his plays; 412 glass negatives from the collection of pioneering photographer Jacob Riis that document living conditions of the city’s poor; and the Stettheimer Dollhouse, which contains a miniature painting by Marcel Duchamp.

One highlight of the exhibition will be an exploration of the songs of New York, featuring music from the city’s five boroughs inspired by its subways and streets.

Each borough will be represented by an outline on the gallery’s floor. When people step into a specific borough, snippets of a song will be played from a speaker on the ceiling, while images or video and information about the song will be projected on the gallery wall. Music featured here will range from the Mills Brothers’ 1931 “Coney Island Washboard,” celebrating Brooklyn, to Jennifer Lopez’s 2002 paean to the Bronx, “Jenny from the Block.”

A unique feature of the “At Home in New York” section of the exhibition will be a reading room furnished with what the museum describes as “a digital bookshelf.” It will be toward the end of the gallery, filled with books and VHS or DVD boxes, all embedded with a radio frequency identification tag. Visitors can choose an item from the bookshelf and place it on a docking station at the end of the gallery that will read the bar code on the tag and project the appropriate audio or video.

Among the more than 20 books on the bookshelf will be John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio,” read by Matthew Broderick, and “Harriet the Spy,” written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh and read by Lea DeLaria. Television shows will range from “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy” to “Seinfeld” and “Living Single.” All works featured are set in New York and depict life at home there.

The “Destination NYC” section of the exhibition will feature works by artists and photographers — such as Edward Hopper, Romare Bearden, Nan Goldin and Faith Ringgold — depicting places where New Yorkers spend their free time, including restaurants, nightclubs, bars, parks, fire escapes, rooftops and waterfronts, such as Coney Island and Orchard Beach.

Another highlight will be “You Are Here,” an immersive film experience created in partnership with RadicalMedia, a media and communications company based in lower Manhattan. Working with a curatorial committee of filmmakers and other experts, RadicalMedia selected more than 400 films made since the museum’s founding.

According to RadicalMedia’s chairman and CEO Jon Kamen, “bits and pieces” of these films, representing “sound bites of everything we appreciate and love about New York,” have been spliced together to create a 20-minute film that will be projected onto 16 screens in one of the exhibition’s galleries.

The oldest of the films featured will be “Manhandled,” a 1924 silent film starring Gloria Swanson, while the newest will be Questlove’s 2021 film, “Summer of Soul,” about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which won an Academy Award for best documentary feature and of which Kamen was an executive producer.

Sarah Henry, interim director and chief curator of the museum, said its goal since its inception has been “preserving and interpreting the memory of the past and engaging in the contemporary life of the city.”

Noting that “everyone has a love-hate relationship with the city,” she said, now “is a great moment to celebrate and rediscover New York, as we recover from the blow of the pandemic and consider where we’re heading next.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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