Were I to accost patrons at the New York Historical Society, insisting that they answer my questions, I’m sure I’d prove that they underestimate Richard Rabinowitz, the renowned museum curator. “Why do you imagine he so often begins his historical exhibitions with a short film?” I’d demand of a frightened third grader. “Perhaps he wants to introduce museum goers to certain baseline facts and historical themes?” the kid would whimper. True enough! But Rabinowitz’s craft is so much more complicated than that.
This is the rare historian who understands that outside the museum, amid the hot dog vendors and tourist hordes, the people about to attend his show are harried, and that even as they step into the anteroom to buy their tickets, they’re wriggling from coats, dislodging iPod ear phones and shushing overexcited children. It would be foolish to expect them to go through all that, fumble to put their wallet away, attach that little metal ticket thing to their lapel, and absorb the significance of carefully selected historical artifacts! So he instructs the docents to usher newcomers over to some nice wide wooden benches, where they quiet down, stretch their attention spans before an illuminated screen, and assume a mood better suited to engaging history.
Were I curator of a museum exhibit on Rabinowitz, I’d co-opt his methods, starting with a short film that faded to the man himself. Elegantly dressed in a three piece suit, gray hair framing his square-framed glasses, I’d point the camera square into his perpetually engaged eyes, impressing upon visitors that given a few minutes this 60-something man can evoke their curiosity and wonder.
All of which is to say that you should probably go see the Stuyvesant alum’s latest work at the New York Historical Society.
Or do you want to know more about the guy before you decide?
Cue a flashback: January 22, 1967, America in tumult, the Vietnam War raging.
A 21-year-old Rabinowitz drives down a rural Massachusetts highway, en route to Old Sturbridge Village, an outdoor history museum that renders New England life during the early 19th Century. The gates are closed when he arrives, so he rents a motel room affordable on his Harvard graduate student’s budget. He drifts off to sleep, tossing and turning: he is unhappy within academia, restless and bored. He awakes early on a frosty Sunday morning, purchases a ticket to Old Sturbridge Village, and enters.
Forty years later, he calls that day his Road to Damascus moment.
“I’d been studying the sermons of Jonathan Edwards as words on a page, and I suddenly realized that they were delivered in these cavernous meeting houses, among the scampering of cats and dogs and the chattering of unruly children,” Rabinowitz says. “I walked through the houses they’d set up, and I could just feel someone moving a candle to cast light onto paper, and trying to dip their quill into an inkwell before it froze.”
He gazes at a museum employee portraying a farm wife at her washing board, chases a barnyard cat past a haystack, and converses with an ex-British intelligence officer now portraying a country lawyer. He returns the next morning, secures a job at $1.10 an hour as a costumed interpreter of history, and eventually takes over as the museum’s director of education.
Thus began his life’s work: by 1980 he’d founded a small business, American History Workshop, so that he could freelance museum projects of his own, always focusing on the way that patrons learn, and their experience as they traverse a gallery. He is best known for Slavery in New York, an acclaimed 2005 exhibit at NYHS that exposed the ties between enslaved African labor and New York City’s wealth.
“I try to dislodge people’s ideas about the past, but not for its own sake,” he said. “History should help people reconfigure their thinking so they better understand the present. If we succeed visitors aren’t necessarily mastering every fact or concept. But they are grasping a narrative and connecting their own experiences to it,” he said.
What on earth does that mean in practice?
Consider his exhibit on the Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman who fought alongside the Patriots during the Revolutionary War. A close friend of George Washington, wounded at the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette left the United States in 1779, sailing for France, and returned to America more than forty years later in 1824, arriving in New York before touring all 24 states, receiving a $200,000 honorarium and 24,000 acres from Congress.
Rabinowitz cared very little if patrons remembered those dates and figures. He cared deeply, however, that you grasped the war hero’s welcome that Lafayette received, the awe Americans felt in the physical presence of a hero, and the ways that his visit shaped a young nation’s image of itself.
“The rituals of American patriotism, the things we do today, got established in 1824 through this guy,” he said.
Hence the delight Rabinowitz felt poring over a newspaper published prior to Lafayette’s 1825 visit to Portland, Maine. An advertisement promised a huge exhibition of bears to honor the touring Frenchman.
“I’m trying to impress upon people that something special happens when Lafayette comes to town, so we’re not going to emphasize that they cheer him, or bring out the war veterans, or wear little Lafayette cockades on their hats,” he said. “We’re going to show people that they bring all the bears out! Isn’t that perfect? You’re never going to forget that.”
I never have forgotten that, which is more than I can say for most museum exhibits I’ve seen. Hopefully the New York Historical Society afforded him sufficient gallery space and professional license to tell the story of Grant and Lee right. I’ll report back if I’m able to make it to New York, but if you’re nearby chancing a trip is as good a gamble as any afternoon excursion you’ll make this year.