Richard J. Koke, Visionary Curator of New York’s History, Dies at 91

Historians in the News

Richard J. Koke, who as curator of the New-York Historical Society for nearly 40 years organized much of the institution’s transformation from a repository of documents and artworks into a space where visitors come face to face with relics of New York City and its place in American history, died on May 28 in Plattsburgh, N.Y. He was 91 and lived in Peru, N.Y.

His death was confirmed by Linda S. Ferber, the historical society’s museum director.

Mr. Koke was curator of the museum, at Central Park West and 77th Street in Manhattan, from 1947 to 1983. A roster of just a few of the shows mounted under Mr. Koke takes in American quilts, granite milestones from post roads, portraits of eight generations of the Stuyvesant family, drawings of uniforms from the American Revolution, cannons from the War of 1812, an array of 19th-century toys and a history of the Hudson River.

Founded in 1804, with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison among its earliest members, the society was for much of its history essentially a vast private collection of books, letters, official documents, photographs and art. Although the society presented some exhibitions, Ms. Ferber said, it was primarily a research institute before Mr. Koke’s tenure.

Mr. Koke, she said, led a curatorial staff “that plumbed the depths of these extraordinary collections in a way that provided a model for the interdisciplinary work that we follow here today.” His work, she added, “did a great deal to open up these collections to the broader public.”...
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