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City Museums Look to the Future

A new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York places civic engagement at the forefront.

Visitors to New York at its Core contemplate the future of transit. (Local Projects)

In their most traditional form, museums encapsulate the past, and the Museum of the City of New York’s first permanent installation, open this month, fulfills that expectation. Visitors to New York at its Core are treated to objects that evoke 400 years of the city’s history: the coffee pot of an 18th-century family disgruntled over the tax on tea; Boss Tweed’s cufflinks; a 1978 guestlist from Studio 54; and a baseball signed by the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, among 400 or so other artifacts.

But the exhibition doesn’t quit at the past or present. Following the two historical galleries, the exhibit ends in a room called the Future City Lab, where data manipulations and interactives take the place of artifacts. Rows of sleek tables, decorated with graphs and embedded with tablet screens, invite visitors to contemplate open-ended, forward-looking questions: How can we foster a more inclusive city? How can we meet the housing needs of New Yorkers? How can New York City enhance its natural environment and cope with climate change? What can we do to provide economic opportunities to the next generation? How can we make it easier for people to get into and around the city?

The leap from the past to a speculative future is a large one for an exhibit to make, and it’s still a fairly new concept. The Museum of London’s permanent exhibition, opened in 2010, looks back at 350 years of the city’s history and includes a room called Capital Concerns, in which visitors can sound off on current challenges facing London, like debates over building height and density. While the MCNY deputy director and chief curator Sarah Henry drew inspiration from London, she says that New York at its Core is both larger in scale and more firmly oriented toward the future. “We’re challenging the traditional role of a museum,” says the Future City Lab project director Kubi Ackerman. “When it comes to the future, we can’t claim any prescience, or really take a curatorial stance, but we hope that this gives people a way to participate in a conversation,” he adds.

Visitors come face-to-face with bygone New Yorkers in the World City gallery. (Local Projects)

New York at its Core was a long time coming: The project, five years in development, caps a decade-long, $100 million renovation of the MCNY building. Compared to nearby behemoths like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which draws over six million visitors each year, MCNY, with over 245,000 guests annually, occupies a small corner of the market. But it’s one in which Henry sees great potential. “We see ourselves as a civic organization—a place that promotes citizenship and engagement in the life of the city,” Henry says.

Across the historical timeline, figures like Walt Whitman and Wong Chin Foo tell their personal stories on interactive screens; large streetscape screens and moving images along the walls evoke a sense of place. In the future gallery, the place is contemporary New York, and the key players are the visitors themselves. “We really want people to understand that though you might’ve just met Alexander Hamilton or Jay-Z, you as a person in New York have the same ability to effect change,” Henry says.

An interactive in the Future City Lab. (Local Projects)

Creating that sense of possibility involved designing responsiveness into the exhibit, says Jake Barton, the founder of the design firm Local Projects, which developed the interactives for New York at its Core. “There’s an understanding that the task of disseminating information has already been won by the internet,” Barton says. Museum exhibits like New York at its Core, he says, are crucial because they present visitors an opportunity to “learn by doing.” In the Future City Lab, visitors confront the housing crisis through a game in which they play the role of developer, selecting building materials and number of apartments; they consider economic opportunity by virtually trailing New Yorkers—from bodega workers to bike messengers—as they go about their work. In the background, a large map of New York constantly shifts to reflect different demographic trends, which Barton says will be continually updated as the latest data becomes available. Before they leave, visitors hit a table filled with stacks of paper on which they can write responses to questions about civic life, which will be incorporated into the Future City Lab as it evolves. “It’s just paper and conversation, but it is a technology in the sense that it’s fostering engagement” and getting people talking to each other, Barton says.

Often, Barton says, permanent exhibitions at city museums are one-visit shows. The organizers of New York at its Core, however, intend for it to be an evolving resource, one that reflects visitor input and the changing demographics and circumstances of the city that houses it. It’s an experiment, Henry says, but one that could pave a new way for thinking about the role of cultural institutions in cities. “There’s a sense of plasticity about New York and about the exhibit,” Henry says. “Change is the only constant in this city, and the hands that will shape it are those of people that are alive today.”

New York at its Core is on view at the Museum of the City of New York. Suggested donation: $14.

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