DML Blog

The New York Times' A History of New York in 50 Objects

posted on 20 Nov 2013 19:15 by Andrew Gardner

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Main screen of 50 Objects.

If you haven’t already heard, we are preparing for a very exciting exhibition on New York City in the 19th-century, curated by Prof. David Jaffee, who also heads up new media research here at the BGC. The exhibition opens in Fall 2014. While this is neither the time nor the place to begin discussing preparations for this exciting exhibition (Laura, my DML colleague, and I will be working on the In Focus gallery project next semester, so I am sure you will be hearing more about it very soon), I do think it’s an excellent opportunity to think about projects looking at similar subject matter and how it is treated in the digital space. Part of next semester’s challenge will be to conceive of any digital components of the exhibition. The other challenge is deciding which objects will work best to tell our story.

The New York Times’ A History of New York in 50 Objects is an excellent starting point for thinking about the life of New York City over the last several millenia. This digital gallery includes 50 objects that help define or explain the history of New York, from its earliest residents to the latest in 21st-century technology. Objects include: the tusk of one of Manhattan’s earlier residents (mastodons); a print of the settlement of the Dutch on Governor’s Island to the old oyster shells the heyday of the city’s industry; a stamp depicting the first Armory Show; the yellow metrocard; and an artisanal bar of chocolate from Brooklyn. It’s a remarkable collection of objects to be sure.

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Singer sewing machine.

This project is an interesting case to consider, partly because we, as students of material culture, have to approach these objects from multiple perspectives. We think about them as primary source documents where text or language do not exist and we think about what objects best represent our subject or best tell its story. I am therefore curious about some of the curatorial decisions that were made in this particular project, and the telling exclusions. In the comments section at the bottom of the page, a commenter suggests that there should be a shirtwaist representing the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which was a pivotal moment in the labor rights movement in America. But clearly, the editors and curators thought that an original Singer sewing machine would better illustrate the booming garment industry in New York and trumped the importance of the labor rights movement. As Sam Roberts, who wrote the introduction to the project says, “ours ‘can only be a history’ and ‘not the history.’”

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The challenges of piecing together a gigantic story using only a few key objects seems a remarkably difficult task, even with the help of curators and historians. For example, I would have liked to have seen reference made to the city’s agrarian past and perhaps something that touched on the city’s culture of fine dining and Broadway theater. With this in mind, I will say that I was quite interested to learn the story of the origins of air conditioning and that Edison operated a primitive power station on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan before the age of electricity was upon us.

I am also intrigued with the way that the digital exhibition functions on the NYTimes.com site. The pop-up lightbox photo gallery feature is nice, but it still is very Web 2.0. I immediately think of the possibilities that tools like Prezi, where zoom features figure heavily and where the object and the text work seamlessly together as your navigate through a timeline or set path of images. At the very least, I would have loved to have seen zooming technology so that some of the smaller details of the objects themselves. While certainly light years ahead of what most institutions can accomplish in terms of technological slickness, I do think that the navigation, the lack of zooming technology and the inability to read more about a particular object are limitations of this project.

With all this in mind, it gives me a lot to think about as we look towards the spring semester, when we will be preparing the 19th-century New York Focus Gallery show. Stay tuned for more!

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