Mike Wallace: What's Wrong with the Hamilton Exhibit at the N-Y Historical Society

Roundup: Talking About History

Mike Wallace, at the website of the Gotham Center (Nov. 2004):

I think Edward Rothstein's New York Times review of the Alexander Hamilton exhibition at the New-York Historical Society is right on target: the show is seriously flawed and deeply condescending.1 But I'm not convinced it's correct to lay the lion's share of responsibility for the exhibition's failings at designer Ralph Applebaum's door. Applebaum's client wanted a "blockbuster" - mammoth crowds, lines around the block - and the designer sought to oblige. He provided a format heavy on audiovisual gimmicks - "straining for sensation" (as Rothstein puts it) - and light on explanatory text, as if a more reasoned presentation would alienate attendees. James Traub essentially concurs with Rothstein's assessment, suggesting in his Times Magazine review that the exhibition - which he finds by turn baffling and hectoring - dumbed down its presentation to pack people in.2

It's true that in an effort to enhance turnout and reach new audiences, worthy goals I heartily share, the show opted for flash and scrimped on text - without, in the end, garnering the desired crowds. But the exhibit's flaws go beyond packaging and style to conception and content - to what it says, not just how it says it - and responsibility here properly rests with Applebaum's client.

That client, we should be clear, was only technically the New-York Historical Society. Responsibility for the Hamilton exhibition is explicitly attributed to, and proudly claimed by, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, an organization founded by recently arrived N-YHS Trustees Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman. James Basker, Gilder-Lehrman's President, is listed as Project Director. The exhibition was in effect outsourced - or in-sourced, given the Institute's expanding presence within the Society. The N-YHS served merely as host body.

Before the show opened, there was widespread concern that the right wing proclivities of Messrs. Gilder and Lehrman might color future Society offerings. I took a wait-and-see position, because the Gilder-Lehrman Institute had been scrupulous in the past about not imposing a political litmus test on scholarship it supported. Besides, a conservative assessment of Hamilton might well have proved interesting, and the curator assigned the task, Richard Brookhiser (an editor of the right wing National Review), had written a good short biography of Hamilton - polemical and boosterish, but smartly argued and elegantly written. Now, however, with the disappointing results on view, it seems appropriate to ask if the exhibit's flaws are in fact related to its promoters' politics.

At a technical level, some of the show's more amateurish defects can perhaps be attributed to Gilder-Lehrman's reliance on staff chosen more for ideological than museological credentials. Project Manager Basker, when not managing Gilder-Lehrman affairs, is an English professor at Barnard. Curator Brookhiser has never worked in museums, so far as I'm aware, and mounting exhibits demands different skills than writing books.

The constraints of ideology are more directly evident in the spin put on Hamilton's career and its putative impact on our contemporary world. Most visitors will have trouble discerning any coherent thesis here, but for those aware of what's been downplayed or excised from the historical (and contemporary) record, and who know just how debatable some of the interpretive assertions are, the exhibit takes on a more partisan cast. There's nothing wrong with having a point of view on these issues - Hamilton's been a lightning rod for criticism and acclaim for over two hundred years now - but it would have been more respectful of (and interesting for) museum-goers had Gilder-Lehrman's biases been acknowledged.

In the analysis that follows I'm going to restore some of the deleted information and recall some of the contending interpretations, on the assumption that most viewers aren't professional historians. I'll draw on a variety of scholarly studies, but limit direct references to Ron Chernow's marvelous Alexander Hamilton, the most recent biography, and in my judgment the best. Chernow is as ardent and persuasive an admirer as one could hope for in one's biographer. But he scrupulously acknowledges criticisms of Hamilton by contemporaries and historians, rebutting those he considers ill-founded, accepting those he believes merited, and this gives his occasional reservations particular weight and force.

A final prefatory note: my goal in undertaking this lengthy (eighteenth-century pamphlet length!) exegesis goes beyond reviewing a particular exhibit. I also want to assess the implications - or, hopefully, irrelevance - of the show's failings for the future of the New-York Historical Society, an institution in whose success I and many other New Yorkers are deeply invested. I hope my critique will spur readers to post their own commentaries on the Gotham Center's discussion board - about the exhibit, about the merits and demerits of my take on it, about the future of the N-YHS and the future of New York City's past.

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