Open House New York 2013

Finally, finally, I managed to participate in Open House New York (OHNY). Spaces fill up fast, I learned; best to be ready to roll as soon as registration opens. But for all that I managed a wonderful (and very full!) day.

First stop: the Digital Lab at the Museum of the City of New York

Behind the scenes of MCNY's groundbreaking online collection initiative, staff shared with us their equipment, process, and a few of digitization's many positive repercussions. Scanning images at a very high resolution, for example, allows unprecedented identification of shooting locations through research on newly legible business names. The ability to read billboards and signs posted on windows allows for a literal snapshot of cultural/daily events. Go to the collections portal and search around for street intersections or landmarks… it's an internet rabbit hole you won't be sorry to have entered.

Here is an example of how MCNY's endeavor is revolutionizing the collection and its potential for research and accessibility. The museum has a large collection of glass negative plates, often without corresponding photographic prints. This means that, at least in some cases, the inverted digital scans enable viewing of the image for the very first time.

George P. Hall and Son. Cathedral Interior, ca. 1900. Gelatin Dry Plate Negative. 11 x 18 inches. Courtesy MCNY Collections Portal, 92.53.1.

I also learned of an excellent opportunity for crowd-sourcing that benefits both the public and the institution: Mystery Photo Friday. Apparently we the people who follow MCNY on Facebook have been tremendously helpful in identifying streets and even famous persons represented in photographs—until the advent of an economic and practical face recognition software, this is certainly the most effective way to go!

And speaking of ways to go, my visit happened to coincide with the last day of the museum's exhibition on Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery.

A Beautiful Way To Go: New York's Green-Wood Cemetery
I am so, so glad I caught it. An intriguing premise, that a final resting place can provide a framework for exploring New York life and living. With permanent residents ranging from Horace Greeley (1811-1872) to Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), the exhibition effectively surveys New York City history. A concise but illuminating blurb concerning each of these prominent citizens accompanies a selection of relevant artifacts—a camera designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, a vintage postcard of Coney Island for Steeplechase founder George Cornelius Tilyou, toy animals to honor Frederick (F) A. O. Schwarz, and a marble bust of Louisa Ward by her husband Thomas Crawford, most famous for his "Statue of Freedom" sculpture atop the capitol building in Washington, D.C. Louise and her sisters earned the nickname "The Three Graces of Bond Street" and one of her siblings, Julia Ward Howe, penned the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Each glass vitrine is roughly positioned over its location on the cemetery map covering the floor. Courtesy NYT/Associated Press.

MCNY uses this riveting collection of artifacts—mostly drawn from its own extensive holdings—to craft numerous mini-narratives held together by a few broader arcs. One of these is the framework of the cemetery, manifest in the show's very installation. A map of Greenwood covers the floor—an aside alerts visitors that "this gallery puts Green-Wood Cemetery beneath your feet"—with each glass vitrine roughly positioned over the burial site of the individuals it concerns. Another cohering narrative reflects changing ideas about nature and the advent of public spaces.

Advocates touted Green-Wood as a leisure destination.
Byron Company. Cemeteries, Greenwood Brooklyn, May 30, 1899. Gelatin Silver Print. 13.25 x 10.25 inches (image). Courtesy MCNY Collections Portal,

Green-Wood predated—and influenced—Central and Prospect Parks, and its advocates marketed it as a destination of leisure and even as an outdoor museum. A smattering of guidebooks, postcards and stereograph cards speak to this aspect of Green-Wood's history, as do vintage maps and assorted mementos like a mantle clock featuring an image of the cemetery (odds bodkins?). A selection of oil paintings, meanwhile, illustrates an emerging new perspective on nature, viewing it less as a hostile, uncontrollable force and more as an opportunity for contemplation and appreciating beauty. Green-Wood's architecture also evolved closely with contemporary trends. Original designs for its noteworthy gates represent the Gothic Revival style, as does the chapel representing the work of illustrious firm Warren & Wetmore—also designers of Grand Central Terminal and several other notable commissions in the city.

Illustrated Postal Card Co. Main entrance to Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn N.Y., ca. 1909. Postcard. 3.5 x 5.5 inches. Courtesy MCNY Collections Portal, F2011.33.800.

Next up: New York Academy of Medicine

NYAM happens to be right across the street from MCNY, and an excellent example of Romanesque architecture. Constructed in 1927 as the third permanent home of the Academy, it includes beautiful reading rooms, a phenomenal rare book collection (which I had the pleasure of visiting with my BGC class The Renaissance Book: Cookbook As Case Study), and enviably volume-inous stacks (haha). Its collections are available to the public—fairly unique among medical libraries—and anyone can make an appointment to view its prodigious holdings. These number around 32,000 volumes from the 15th-18th centuries, as well as manuscripts, archives, and additional reference materials (peruse the catalogue here).

NYAM entrance (detail). Courtesy NYAM website.

From the entrance to the details of the interior, aesthetic references to medical history abound. Frequently depicted are Aesculapius, the god of medicine and physicians, his daughter Hygeia, the goddess of health. Arabesque patterns decorating the ceiling of the entry refer to the medical symbolism of the Herbal School of Salernum, also incorporating animals over time associated with medical practice: the watchful dog, who drives away death; the serpent, which signifies longevity and rejuvenation; the goose, symbolic of motherhood. Everywhere one finds beautiful and deliberate architectural detail, surrounding windows, inlaid to the Levanto marble floor, flanking windows, and adorning ornate painted ceilings. Opportunities for research abound in the assembly room, which the tour guide told us requires further scholarship. The building and the spaces within it provide an ideal setting for the Academy, rich with the visual history of medical science.

The Conservation Lab
Our official tour terminated with a wonderful visit to the conservation lab, where we received brief instruction on binding techniques over history (and learned of the increasingly shoddy but more efficient techniques engendered by mass manufacturing). We got to touch calfskin vellum, a long preferred material, and saw examples of some of the dangers facing books over time (warping, mold damage, and the like). A few lingering questions left us alone with the conservator. When I mentioned my cookbook class, it turned out she had a magnificent sample at the ready: a copy of Apicius, a 9th century manuscript copy of the original 2nd century collection of Roman recipes. Only two copies exist; the other, a more ornate illuminated manuscript, resides at the Vatican. (Read about the NYAM's restoration work on this document here).

Conservation Lab. Courtesy NYAM website.
The Threat of Miniature Books
Before departing, my companion and I returned to the third floor to view a display of staff-made models representing the evolution of bookbinding techniques over time in different areas of the world. To the right, an exhibit chronicling the life cycle of the miniature book, a hilarious and very smart installment by one of NYAM's conservators. She publishes limited edition books, most of which are miniature, and which are available on her website and Etsy).

The life cycle of the miniature book. Courtesy NYAM Facebook page.
"Feeding: A group of miniatures feeds on a larger, slower book." Courtesy artist's website.

Lastly: Kings County Distillery, Brooklyn Navy Yard

Capping off the day: a different borough and a different subject entirely, but one no less entertaining! New York's oldest operating whiskey distillery proved very difficult to access, as attested on their website. Google might direct you to an empty lot, but it is theoretically accessible through a gate at Sands St. and Navy St. In our case, however, the gate proved locked. Hence, a 20 min. trek to Building 92 (a fun destination in its own right) to ask directions, and then a 20 min. walk through the Navy Yard to get back to pretty much where we started. In any case, luckily, we were just in time for the last tour. Also luckily, we chanced to be guided by the delightful and humorous master blender Nicole.

Kings County Distillery. Courtesy

New York's oldest operating whiskey distillery has in fact only been in operation since 2010 but, Nicole informed us, "they're hoping to be around long enough that that acquires some gravitas." She treated us to the kind of crazy history in which 214 New York distilleries pre-Prohibition did not survive that particular legislation, and subsequent restrictions made it nearly impossible to open a new business. Until now. Fortunately for us!

Nicole walked us through the process of distillation—we even got to taste the "mash" out of a large barrel—and the chemistry of the thing is fascinating. So is the flavor. And so too the fact that they source local grains and are working with providers (and the state) to give corn a rest already and grow some other grain variants (like sorghum). We found out a lot about how bourbon production and casking/treating varies from that of scotch and wine and, what we've all been waiting for, we got a tasting! Yay! Moonshine, Bourbon, and a truly unusual experimental "chocolate" variety. Kings County is small and passionate (and located in a 113-year old building!) and they give tours every Saturday. I recommend you go and support your local businesses and all that. Also, you can find out where to buy it (and/or have it served to you) on the website.

Enjoy! (And you're welcome.)

A Beautiful Way To Go: New York's Green-Wood Cemetery is on view from May 22 — October 13, 2013. The Museum of the City of New York is located at 1220 Fifth Avenue (b/t 103rd and 104th), open Mon. – Sun. 10am – 6pm. Suggested admission is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors and students.

The New York Academy of Medicine at 216 Fifth Avenue/103rd Street is open by appointment, Tue. – Fri. 10am – 4:45pm.

The Kings County Distillery is officially located at 63 Flushing Avenue, but should be accessed by the gate at Sands St. and Navy St. (it will be immediately to your right, marked Building 121). See their website for directions. They are open for tours and tastings from 2:30pm — 5:30pm every Saturday, $8, no reservations required. Tours last about 45 minutes and run every 20-30 minutes.

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