Ladies and Gentleman! Step this way! My dear blog readers, please accompany me on a tour to discover the unique and marvelous history of museums in New York City. Be sure to leave your parasols and walking sticks with the attendant. We will be traveling through Scudder’s cabinets of wonder, to see the Great Ajeeb, and even into the apartment of the fabulous Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her confidant Juliana Force. My cherished, curious guests! I know you will be delighted to hear that there is a reception at the conclusion of our expedition.
Let me first lure you to the proprietorship of former sailor Mr. John Scudder, the preeminent naturalist, taxidermist, and scholar of the bizarre and beautiful. He had gallantly taken up the reins of the “American Museum” initially established by Tammany Hall for their very own members in 1791. (Among other things, the collection included guillotines used during the French Revolution for the demonstration of decapitation on wax models.) Renamed Scudder’s American Museum, it was relocated by the City rent-free to the second floor of New York’s first almshouse in City Hall Park in 1812. Working late? No worries, Scudder’s stayed open by candlelight until 9pm several days a week. Visitors could take in the aroma of live mud turtles and other exotic species and then wander down the hall to rest their eyes on the bed linens of Mary, Queen of Scots. There were over 150,000 objects in Scudder’s domain, not to mention a bona fide zoo and performance hall.
Another resident of a former almshouse in City Hall Park (a center for museums in the mid-19th century) was the New~York Historical Society, established in 1804. Its Board was a preeminent assemblage of notables, socialites, and politicians whose vigorous collecting contributed to building a valuable repository of many of the United State’s most treasured documents and works of art. To your left you will see the Historical Society in its later quarters uptown on 11th Street and Second Avenue (constructed in 1857) which would remain its home until 1908.
Next stop: 252 Broadway, Mr. Rubens Peale’s Museum (which opened on the same day as the Erie Canal, October 26, 1825). Peale was the direct competitor of our dear Scudder and son of the great Charles Wilson Peale, founder of the Philadelphia Museum. Artist and eccentric, Rubens Peale assembled four floors of paintings, natural wonders, and slightly unnatural wonders (just a few two-headed sheep here and there), cosmoramas (enormous panoramas of exotic locales, one of which is currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing), and wax figure displays. Peale specialized in live entertainment and lectures, with subjects ranging from animal magnetism to séances. This was not to say New York’s Peale establishment was pure frivolity and entertainment; these displays and presentations stemmed from a Linnean preservationist’s ardor for the natural world and was in spirit with popular science at that time.
Let us now journey three blocks through City Hall Park to Broadway and Ann Street in the year 1841. It seems the colossus otherwise known as P.T.Barnum’s American Museum has engulfed both Scudder’s and Peale’s treasures, amassing both collections under one frenzied roof. Barnum was a master marketer both visually and audibly; his PR consisted of a live band playing on the balcony and the most fantastic typography ever to grace the wheat paste poster. The Museum literally screams at you to come in! Barnum acquired ownership of Peale’s building and kept it running just for contrast against his booming establishment of encyclopedic wonders, which at its peak was open 15 hours a day. See here the “million curiosities”: live freak shows, bizarre and colorful animals (including “sassy monkeys”), and throngs of specimens in outrageous ‘educational’ display. Peale’s American Museum appeared modest and pedantic in comparison.
Ok, enough with the depressing part of the tour. What is this here? A battleship wedged between two buildings on 23rd street? No need to duck the cannon fire, this is the Eden Museé, an astounding palace of wax figures and automata. Their oily waxen faces were not conversational, but they were considered to be excellent listeners. Eden opened its doors in 1884 and was considered a premier establishment for family entertainment, though its reputation was somewhat diluted when it came to the basement “Crypt” (a motley assortment of execution scenes). A New York Times review reported it “incomplete,” having only “four or five tableaus.”
Meet the Mysterious Ajeeb. He was the preeminent resident and chess champion at the Eden Museé. The wise Ageeb has played chess with Sarah Bernhardt, Edgar Allan Poe, and other notables, including celebrity chess players. Do you dare to challenge him? Be careful not to shake his clockwork hand upon defeat, you may find the warm grasp of his operator Mr. Charles Edward Hooper, who worked inside Ajeeb, quite unsettling.
The Museum of Safety, located in the Engineering Societies’ Building on 29 West 39th Street focused on a different kind of conservation than that of artworks and artifacts. The ‘conservation of human life’ was the foremost concern. No exotic fantasies here, only the stark realities of industrial injury. As accident prevention became a big industry, the exhibitions not only educated workers, but also served as advertisements for safety equipment. The transition into an electrified city of telephone lines and automobiles was not met without some unintended tragedy for those uneducated in the dangers these modern wonders .Now we proceed uptown to visit some of the city’s most beloved and ever-thriving institutions in their most rudimentary state. The 1870s was a golden era for museology in New York City. Philanthropists of the Gilded Age bequeathed great sums to create institutions that would hold their own against European models. Virtually unrecognizable, this view of The American Museum of Natural History (above) depicts the original Victorian Gothic building designed by J. Wrey Mould and built between 1874-1877. At this time the surrounding Central Park looks more like an industrial wasteland than the current wooded landscape and austere skyline, since it was still mostly un-developed farmland. Here is an early incarnation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the grid system existed then, many roads remained unpaved and the landscape was largely rural. (Untapped Cities does an excellent job of describing the secret history of the Met’s architecture). The Egyptian government gifted the obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle, in 1881 and shipped it from Alexandria on the Steamship Dessoug. There was a grand Masonic ceremony attended by over 9,000 Masons and 50,000 spectators to celebrate the installation.
Please devote a few brief moments to pay homage to this building, known once as the Adams House. This idyllic Victorian mansion was transformed into the original Brooklyn Children’s Museum in Crown Heights, the world’s first children’s museum established in 1899.Did you know that before Gracie Mansion became the home to New York City’s mayors, it was the original residence for The Museum of the City of New York? Preservationist Henry Collins Brown secured and restored the mansion to include domestic period rooms showcasing the blossoming collection. The City Museum differentiated itself from the New York Historical Society by focusing its acquisitions solely on New York City. Eventually the collection outgrew the historic home and the construction of the building at 1220 Fifth Avenue was spearheaded under the direction of James Speyer and completed with much celebration in 1932. Time to pay a visit to the original Whitney Museum of American Art, originally situated in three adjoining Greenwich Village residencies at 8–12 West 8th Street. It was the first manifestation of The Whitney as a museum as well as the home of its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and her assistant, Juliana R. Force, who amassed an unprecedented collection of contemporary American Art.
Our tour now ends at the Museum of Modern Art. While still standing at the same location since the first permanent building was constructed in 1939, it has doubled in size and gone through several physical incarnations. Entertain yourself with this birds-eye of the then newly constructed MoMA and then follow me downstairs to an opening reception.