Shaping Gotham's Past with Richard Rabinowitz





Elegantly dressed in a three-piece suit, gray hair framing his square-rimmed glasses, Richard Rabinowitz once met me on a blustery spring afternoon outside the New-York Historical Society, the 206-year-old institution where he has helped shape the way that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers see their city's past.

Best known as curator of Slavery in New York, an acclaimed NYHS exhibit that exposed the ties between enslaved African labor and New York City's wealth, the 65-year-old has spent more than four decades creating history exhibits for general audiences in the United States and abroad. His focus is always on the way that museum-goers learn, and their experience as they traverse a gallery -- approaches I began to understand better before we even entered the building.

"Patrons line up at this counter to buy tickets," he told me. "As the cashier hands them change they're invariably wriggling from heavy coats, dislodging iPod earphones or shushing overexcited children."

Once inside, they're therefore directed to watch a short film. Background information useful to the exhibit is introduced. Even more importantly, however, TV time in the spacious hall delays the moment when they enter the main gallery: seated indoors on wooden benches before an illuminated screen, people quiet down, stretch their attention spans, and assume a mood better suited to engaging the history that awaits them.

Attention to the minute aspects of audience experience has paid dividends for Dr. Rabinowitz in recent years. After Slavery in New York broke attendance records at the historical society in 2005, earning rave reviews from New York City press, the curator was contracted to design a sequel exhibit, New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War, and subsequent shows on The Marquis de Lafayette, Abraham Lincoln and New York City, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and his current project, an exploration of the 18th Century "age of revolutions" with a special focus on Haiti.

Throughout this multi-exhibit run, special attention has been paid to challenging the established narratives that New Yorkers have about American history and their city's place in it.

"I try to dislodge people's ideas about the past, but not for it's own sake," Rabinowitz says. "History should help people reconfigure their thinking so they better understand the present and their place in it."

The two shows on slavery, elements of which remain in the NYHS permanent collection, accomplished that goal, complicating NYC history via carefully constructed gallery exhibits that showcase their curator's creative range. Rabinowitz has long employed technology to engage visitors or create a magic moment, according to John Jacobsen, a museum planner who has known him since 1974. "He's innovative, but always eschews gimmicks that overwhelm or distract," he said, citing a Slavery in New York display as a particularly good example. Research revealed that the public well was one of the only places New York City slaves were allowed to congregate, since they were fetching water for their masters. In the exhibit, visitors came upon a well; looking inside, they saw the reflection of black faces as the candid conversations of slaves echoed up from its depths....


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