Small New York Museums Recall Significant Pieces of History

By By Victor Block Modified: July 3, 2013 at 3:21 pm •  Published: July 3, 2013
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Standing on a half-acre bog that encircles a dilapidated 19th-century stone cottage, I couldn't help but think about my recent visit to Ireland. The vegetation and even the rocks scattered about the site were identical to those I recalled. Then the sight of towering skyscrapers and the sound of honking automobile horns rather than the bleating of sheep startled me back to reality.


    In fact I was at the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York City, a compact space that provides a moving recollection of the Great Irish Potato Famine. Between 1845 and 1852, this horrific event caused nearly a million deaths and forced millions more to emigrate to the United States, many of them to New York.
    The memorial includes stones from all 32 of Ireland's counties, native limestone that was created more than 300 million years ago, and more than 100 pertinent quotations from letters, poems, songs and other sources. The two-room cottage was donated by a family whose ancestors had occupied the same site in County Mayo since 1820.
    The Irish Hunger Memorial relates the story of families who faced tragedy in Ireland and found renewal in their adopted country. I discovered it during a quest for smaller, often-overlooked museums in New York City that present chapters of American history as varied as they are intriguing.
    The lives of other immigrants who became part of the wave that transformed the United States into the world's melting pot come to life in a nondescript five-story brick building that from 1863 to 1936 served as home to more than 7,000 immigrants. Detailed research into their lives has enabled historical interpreters at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to dramatize and humanize their stories as no statistics can do.   
    Hallways are dank and dark, but peeling wallpaper and cracked plaster are still visible. Stepping into a tiny 325-square-foot apartment, I learned that when it was occupied in the late 19th century by the German-Jewish Gumpertz family -- Natalie, her shoemaker husband and four children -- it lacked heat, running water and bathroom facilities.
    By the time Adolfo and Rosario Baldizzi from Palermo, Italy, moved into the building decades later, running cold water and a sink, which doubled as a tub for weekly family baths, must have seemed like a luxury. Hearing a recording made by their daughter Josephine of her recollections of growing up in the flat added to my sense of knowing the Baldizzis through sharing some of their most intimate stories.
    The New York City Fire Museum occupies a renovated firehouse built in 1904, and its collection of paraphernalia dates from when New York was still a colony up to today. A horse-drawn steam engine and a pumper that required 40 men to operate prompted me to wonder why the entire city never burned to the ground.
    The stovepipe helmets used in the early to mid-1800s resemble headwear that Abraham Lincoln might have worn. Early 20th-century breathing gear looks like a diver's helmet attached to a "breathing bag" worn on the chest.
    Another small institution, the Museum of Chinese in America, recounts a big story -- that of the influx of Chinese into the United States that coincided with the flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many were men who came to help build the transcontinental railroad and toil at other sweat-inducing jobs, sending most of their money to their families back home.   
    Along with a collection of more than 65,000 artifacts, documents, newspapers, photographs and other items, the story is told by means of oral histories, walking tours and film festivals. Two exhibits running through September celebrate Chinese-American fashion designers who have made their mark in New York and the recent revolution in style among women in China.  A colorful costume from the Chinese opera contrasts with outfits from the China National Silk Museum, which demonstrates one reason why Shanghai came to be known as "the Paris of the East."
    Very different styles of women's attire, including bead-decorated moccasins, are on display at the National Museum of the American Indian. It's fitting that the location in the century-old Alexander Hamilton Custom House adjoins an open space that served as the site of an Indian trading area during Colonial times.
    The displays present the culture and traditions of native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere from their earliest history to the present day. Among the more treasured items are an exquisite Olmec jade head believed to have been carved as early as 900 B.C. and a magnificent Crow warrior's robe.
    An exhibit titled "Circle of Dance" demonstrates the importance that music and movement have played in the cultural and social lives of native peoples. Each dance is represented by a mannequin dressed in appropriate regalia and posed in a distinctive position, while a video displays the movements and plays the music integral to each performance.
    More interesting to a group of middle-school students who were sharing my time at the museum was information about the use of animal intestines and bladders to store liquids. "Yuck" and "gross" were among the more polite reactions to the explanation that I heard.
    While hardly of gourmet quality, food that was served to crew members on a World War II aircraft carrier probably received a more welcome reaction. The story is told with menus, photographs and other reminders of the challenge of feeding 3,000 sailors aboard the USS Intrepid.
     Today the ship is permanently docked at a pier on the Hudson River and serves as the centerpiece of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Nearly two dozen aircraft are parked on the Flight Deck, while the Gallery Deck includes the Ready Room, where pilots received their final pre-mission briefings.
    Videos highlight major chapters in the ship's history, and interactive exhibits offer opportunities to experience a flight simulator, transmit Morse code messages and clamber aboard a helicopter. Most poignant to me was the "Kamikaze" exhibit, a multimedia experience that includes smoke and flame effects to bring to life the day the Intrepid was struck by two Japanese suicide planes.
    At the opposite end of the size scale is a museum that hardly warrants the name but is closely associated with what many people picture when they think of New York.  While I walked quickly past the more technical exhibits at the Skyscraper Museum, scale models of the three tallest buildings in the world -- in Dubai, Taiwan and Shanghai -- caught my attention.
    I was also mesmerized by two hand-carved miniature wooden models of downtown and midtown Manhattan. Imagine a 4.7-inch-tall Empire State Building and 10 Lilliputian city blocks that can fit in the palm of your hand. My conclusion: Even little things in New York City can make a big impression.
WHEN YOU GO
    Irish Hunger Memorial and Skyscraper Museum: www.bpca.ny.gov.
     The Tenement Museum: www.tenement.org
    The New York City Fire Museum: www.nycfiremuseum.org
    Museum of Chinese in America: www.mocanyc.org  
    National Museum of the American Indian: www.nmai.si.edu
    Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum: www.intrepidmuseum.org
   
    Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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