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The Future of the City

Shaping Gotham's Past

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.

"As technology goes, it's simple enough to put speakers down there, but the effect was mesmerizing," Jacobsen says.

I visited the sequel show, New York Divided, twice in the spring of 2007. The exhibit's narrative unfolds with carefully chosen details. Unlike many museum artifacts, which are explained individually in great detail, as though every bit of history is equally important, the objects displayed are all critical pieces in conveying a particular narrative about 19th Century New York.

The first room displays cotton bales, business ledgers and trade ship replicas. Cotton crops picked by slaves on Southern plantations got financed by New York bankers and shipped overseas by New York merchants, visitors are told. The slave system thus generated untold wealth in the city.

Rabinowitz and his team tried to go a step farther, getting inside the heads of those cotton traders, researching letters and diaries, and learning about the bonds of trust that they relied upon in the absence of modems or even telegraphs. "Soon they began to sympathize with these Southerners who didn't cheat them," Rabinowitz says. "That affected their attitudes about slavery as a whole, the Congressional candidates and presidents they voted for, everything."

The narrative presented in Slavery in New York and New York Divided surprised many NYHS patrons, who conceived of slavery as a Southern sin, and never imagined their city was built with wealth from that "peculiar institution" more than most others other in 18th and 19th Century America.

Prior to their opening, Rabinowitz thought the shows might be controversial for that reason. America has legacies to be proud of and shameful legacies; some prefer to forget the latter. There is also the sensitivity of the subject matter. Once while doing a project on a related topic in Charleston, South Carolina, an African American man, upset by the idea of a white man rendering painful moments in black history, told Rabinowitz, "It's a violation of my human rights to have someone like you telling this story."

The New York City exhibits weren't ultimately controversial. In fact, one African American patron delighted Rabinowitz by saying that when she's next on Wall Street she'll feel like her ancestors built a lot more of the city than she'd ever imagined. But the curator said he would've stood by his material even if it someone had reacted as the South Carolina man did. "These aren't genetic issues, they're cultural issues, so I don't feel ashamed for any of it," he said. "I wasn't there. You weren't either. And we're all obligated to use our talents for the good of others, whether our great-grandfather was a Russian immigrant or a slave or a Southern plantation owner with 5,000 slaves he whipped everyday."

HOW NEW YORK CITY SHAPED A HISTORIAN

Richard Rabinowitz grew up in East New York, a community of second-generation Jewish immigrants on the southeast edge of Brooklyn. On a clear day he could see the Empire State Building, though the neighborhood felt quite remote to a child. Its inhabitants were working class or lower middle class. Many grandparents spoke only Yiddish.

He places even his family members in history's context as he relates their stories. His father, 93-years-old  when we spoke back in 2007, began to read public library books at an early age, a habit he kept up his whole life. Says Rabinowitz, "He is probably the greatest beneficiary of Andrew Carnegie in American history."

His father worked odd jobs in the 1930s, and as a shipyard electrician during World War II. In the late 1940s he bought watchstraps for 15 cents, walked the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, and sold them for double the price, coming home with $5 at the end of the day. In 1957 he became a smalltime distributor, selling toothpaste, notebooks and pens to bodegas and small groceries.

Rabinowitz's mother was 91 when we spoke, still alive and still married after 71 years. Her family emigrated from Poland when she was 12 years old. She worked in the garment shops, and later helped run the family supplies business.

Though uneducated, she is brilliant, Rabinowitz said, and possesses an extraordinary sense of herself in history. On the afternoon he asked her to tell her life story, for example, she rolled up her sleeve, showing eight separate scars from eight different smallpox inoculations. "I was born in 1916," she said, "and every army that came into our shtetl vaccinated the whole population."

It's the kind of detail that Rabinowitz labors to unearth when researching an exhibit. "People tell the story of World War I, but they need to know how to tell the Sarah Rabinowitz story," he says. "She has knowledge in her fingertips, the kind of knowledge that decays if we aren't careful and is lost to us forever."

Rabinowitz remembers long boyhood days on Brooklyn sandlots playing ball or tag with friends from his neighborhood, away from adults for hours on end. Often a class president in elementary school, an organizer of baseball games, and a voracious reader, he excelled in his studies, winning academic awards at a time when New York City schoolteachers and a nation shown up by Sputnik assiduously nurtured bright children.


In a Richard Rabinowitz exhibit, thematic shifts are accentuated by changing the gallery's lighting, or the floor coverings, or the dimensions of the room. In 10th grade, the Rabinowitz world underwent an analogous shift when he began attending Stuyvesant High School in a program for academically gifted students.

He took the subway to Manhattan each day, enthralled by its scope and textures and lights. "I created a whole new persona for myself, breathtaking in its ambition," he remembers. Though his parents had never taken him to a concert or a ballet, he found a circle of like-minded kids around the city, and spent three or four nights a week at the theater, or standing in the Metropolitan Opera.

"Intellectually, it was far more exciting than college would ever be," he said.

Around the same time, Rabinowitz spent a summer at Camp Rising Sun, an international boy's camp in upstate New York where he produced stage plays, and returned in subsequent summers as the drama counselor. "I was never an actor, always a director, and the style of my mind really focuses on how people move through space," he said. "Even now when I design a museum exhibit, it's the first question I ask myself."

LEAVING NEW YORK

As a high school senior Rabinowitz got a scholarship offer from Harvard, a place so revered in his neighborhood that he felt unable to turn it down, though he soon thought he'd made a mistake. "If I'd had the chutzpah I'd have stayed in New York, gone to work as a stage manager, tried to date a lot of different kinds of women," he says.

He graduated college summa cum laude, writing his senior thesis on Herman Melville; afterward he took a graduate fellowship in American Studies, meanwhile translating French documents to explore the origins of the Vietnam War.

It is almost perplexing that Rabinowitz didn't enjoy graduate school more. He describes himself as a lover of dining hall conversation, counts the days he read Moby Dick from cover to cover as some of the best of his life, and sometimes gets so enthralled by research that he'll sit all day without going to the bathroom. He nevertheless felt restless, and one day astonished his colleagues by forsaking his fellowship, and its coveted draft deferment, to accept a $1.10 an hour job.

Here's how it happened: January 22, 1967, America in tumult, the Vietnam War raging. A 21-year-old Rabinowitz drives down a rural Massachusetts highway, en route to Old Sturbridge Village, an outdoor history museum that renders New England life during the early 19th Century. The gates are closed when he arrives, so he rents a motel room affordable on his grad student's budget. He drifts off to sleep, tossing and turning.

He awakes early on a frosty Sunday morning, purchases a ticket to Old Sturbridge Village, and enters. Forty years later, he calls that day his Road to Damascus moment.

"I'd been studying the sermons of Jonathan Edwards as words on a page, and I suddenly realized that they were delivered in these cavernous meeting houses, among the scampering of cats and dogs and the chattering of unruly children," Rabinowitz said. "I walked through the houses they'd set up, and I could just feel someone moving a candle to cast light onto paper, and trying to dip their quill into an inkwell before it froze."

He described the day like a sepia tone montage. He gazes at a museum employee portraying a farm wife at her washing board, chases a barnyard cat past a haystack, and converses with an ex-British intelligence officer portraying a country lawyer. He returns the next morning, secures a job at $1.10 an hour as a costumed interpreter of history, and eventually takes over as the museum's director of education.

THE ROAD BACK TO NEW YORK

By age 26, he was promoted to Director of Education, a position he found far more fulfilling than standing in front of a blackboard teaching undergraduates. "College professors are stuck with books, but at Sturbridge I could teach with mud, and wind, and light," he said. "When kids wrote verse among the trees we'd have them set their own poems on a printing press. It was a miracle."

In those days the whole museum world was in upheaval, remembered University of North Carolina Professor Philip Gura, who has known Rabinowitz ever since they overlapped at Harvard.

"Richard began absorbing and formulating all these ideas about how to present history to the masses," he said. "He's never seen history as the exclusive story of the big people, or the big events, or economic forces. He's fascinated by the nitty-gritty of everyday life, so he'd get people to role play, pretending to be a school master or a preacher, putting themselves in the mindset of people who lived during that time."


After teaching for a year at Scripps College in Claremont, California, Rabinowitz finally returned to Harvard, earning his PhD in 1977. Soon he began hustling for freelance museum work. He'd get paid $100 a day to work on projects for designers whose work "often overlooked the richest historical stuff," he says.

In 1980, he and a friend wrote the prospectus for American History Workshop, figuring that if Rabinowitz founded a museum research and design firm, hiring the designers, writers and filmmakers, he could keep his fingers on the creative control. After a number of universities rejected his proposal to build their public history programs around his project work, he never looked back, a decision he finds reckless in hindsight.

"Unlike my colleagues in academia, I found myself at age 50 or 55 without a pension to rely on or anything put away, but I just never allowed myself to believe that this business could fail," he says. Over the years he has shaped hundreds of museum projects in the United States, Canada and Israel. And even monetary rewards came in the end. "This new arrangement at the New York Historical Society provides financial stability, which is nice, but it's also exciting because it allows us to build a New York audience over several exhibits, and connect one story to another," he told me.

HOW HE RENDERS HISTORY

In taking on a new project, Rabinowitz generally assembles a small team of trusted colleagues, spends months shaping a historical narrative, and collaborates on how it should be rendered in the gallery, hammering away at every detail that affects how museum goers will experience it, down to the shadows cast by the lights and the sounds of words on every last text panel, some of which are rewritten dozens of times.

The resulting narrative rarely focuses on the textbook details of a subject.

"If we succeed visitors aren't necessarily mastering every fact or concept," he says. "But they are grasping a narrative and connecting their own experiences to it."

The implications of this approach became clearer to me when Rabinowitz described the planning he did for an exhibit on the Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman who fought alongside the Patriots during the Revolutionary War.

A close friend of George Washington, wounded at the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette left the United States in 1779, sailing for France, and returned to America more than forty years later in 1824, arriving in New York City before touring all 24 states, receiving a $200,000 grant and 24,000 acres from Congress.

Rabinowitz cares very little if you remember those dates and figures. He cares deeply, however, that you grasp the war hero's welcome that Lafayette received, the awe Americans felt in the physical presence of a hero, and the ways that his visit shaped a young nation's image of itself.

"The rituals of American patriotism, the things we do today, got established in 1824 through this guy," he says.

Hence the delight Rabinowitz felt poring over a newspaper published prior to Lafayette's 1825 visit to Portland, Maine: an advertisement promised a huge exhibition of local bears to honor the touring Frenchman.

"I'm trying to impress upon people that something special happens when Lafayette comes to town," Rabinowitz told me. "So we're not going to emphasize that they cheer him, or bring out the war veterans, or wear little Lafayette cockades on their hats."

 He pauses for emphasis.

 "We're going to show people that they bring all the bears out! Isn't that perfect? You're never going to forget that."

On another occasion, I met Rabinowitz at his Park Slope brownstone, a spacious, book-filled home and business headquarters where he lives with his second wife, Lynda Kaplan, a partner in American History Workshop. He spoke about the challenge of preparing multiple upcoming exhibits at the New York Historical Society, among other projects, work that kept him as busy as he'd ever been. It's a tremendous amount of history to cover, he said, "although the exhibits are in some sense connected by a common thread."

How so, I wondered, though I didn't speak up, not wanting to interrupt. The conversation turned to the Civil War for 45 minutes. He paused to pour us scotch on the rocks, and we spoke of the Haitian Revolution until dinnertime. On the short walk to a 7th Avenue restaurant I asked him, "So what connects the Haitian Revolution and the Civil War?" His eyes glinted as though his mind was spinning the connective thread that moment. Clueless as to what he'd say, I nevertheless felt surprise as he began to speak.

"When I watch the Green Bay Packers play, and see the cheese heads in the stands," he said, "I wonder if anyone knows why Wisconsin became dairy land."

He paused for a beat.

"It's because when people settled in Kansas and Nebraska there wasn't any building material, so they had to cut down trees in Wisconsin and Michigan and Minnesota. They sailed them through to Chicago - one of the biggest lumber ports for 100 years - to build their farmhouses and barns. Afterward the land left behind was suddenly suited for something like dairy farms."

We sat down. I ordered a burger; he opted for a salad. He continued as if without interruption.

"The world is filled with these interwoven stories," he said. "I didn't invent the notion that an exhibit should have a story line, but I'm one of its most devoted practitioners. The Haitian Revolution led to the Louisiana Purchase. France kept the Louisiana Territory largely because they needed to grow food to supply what is now Haiti. Once they lost the island, Napoleon could sell off the territory, opening whole new frontiers to Westward expansion. That intensified the conflict between free states and slave states that eventually precipitated the Civil War."

As I pondered his monologue, from cheese heads to secession, I wondered whether my delight had more to do with the substance of his remarks, or the engaging timbre he gave his voice, or his comic's timing, or the hand gestures that accentuated certain words at precisely the right moment.

Try as I might to maintain critical perspective, I found myself under his spell, listening so intently to his words that I forgot to continue eating my burger. Friends and colleagues I've spoken to since assured me that they're as captivated by Rabinowitz most every time they see him, and his success as a freelance curator for all these years is owed partly to his ability to persuade a room full of museum trustees or other important people that any story he is given to tell is in capable hands.

"He's the premier public historian in America," says Anne Emerson, President of the Boston Museum Project, who says her staff has a standing order to turn on a tape recorder whenever he visits, and that she brings him before prospective donors whenever possible. "He talks very quietly, everyone leans across the table to hear him, and soon everyone is wrapped around his little finger."

INFLUENCES ON HIS WORK

Aside from Old Sturbridge Village, Richard Rabinowitz cannot name a museum exhibit that has particularly inspired his work, though he'll site countless other influences: a puppet show at the Edinburgh festival, a Tom Stoppard play at the Lincoln Center, a Franz Schubert string quartet.

Often he recalls a church he visited in Venice, Italy, where he saw a woman in a black shawl approaching the altarpiece. The scent of lit candles hung in the air, and the building's architecture soared around her. She knelt before the altarpiece, captivated by the object and its surroundings.

"People should connect to an exhibit like that religious woman connected to the altarpiece," Rabinowitz says, "which I can't say to my clients or designers unless we've had a drink together and everyone has loosened up a bit."

Over the last 30 years, as museums have evolved from scarcely attended, subsidized centers of indoctrination to places meant to engage the visitor and survive on his dollar, Rabinowitz has helped lead the way, Jacobsen believes.

"Richard's not someone who is traditional, or invested in keeping things the way they are," he says.  "He's always on the forefront."

More than anyplace else, New York City has been the beneficiary of his innovations, which seems appropriate since Rabinowitz also claims to draw inspiration from it.

Slavery in New York and New York Divided were reinterpretations of its place in ante-bellum America. In an exuberant conversation during the planning stages of the Lafayette exhibit - Rabinowitz was thrilled to be grappling with something lighter than slavery for a change - he spoke to me for 15 minutes about the unique relationship New Yorkers have with sound, and whether there might be some way to render that in a gallery piece about the Frenchman's arrival in the city.

Asked to do an exhibit on Abraham Lincoln and New York City, subjects few Americans associate with one another, he relished the chance to tie the two together in the public imagination. "I don't want to bring the Lincoln you already know to the show," he told me prior to the planning stages of that exhibit. "I want to attach to your sense of Lincoln something unfamiliar, something provocative, and something that helps you understand the present."

In his narrative, Lincoln arrives in New York as an outsider, perceived as a country rube. After cannily posing in Mathew Brady's studio for a portrait, he spends the next 5 years reshaping his image, largely through the power of the New York press. He constructs the sense that he isn't a savage or a warmonger, but a man of remarkable sensitivity, mightily reluctant to shed blood.

"As a political leader, he has to be connected to this massive city," he said. "In a way it's the story of the Clintons or the Bush family: politics, wealth and power inevitably converge, often to our detriment."

HIS INFLUENCE

In executing these exhibits, Rabinowitz has put his narratives before hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, countless school children who tour the NYHS and learn from curriculum guides it publishes, and the New York City press, where his name has appeared with every new show, spreading his reach beyond the walls of the gallery. It is difficult to think of another contemporary figure more influential in shaping how New Yorkers think about the identity of their city in history.

"I insist that I'm not vulgarizing knowledge, or popularizing knowledge or cheapening it," Rabinowitz says. "I'm not taking their knowledge and disseminating it to the masses. I'm getting the masses to engage complicated history, so that they reconfigure the wonderful knowledge they possess."

Going forward, he told me, the challenge that drives him is figuring out how best to do that. "I think we're at the very beginning of understanding how museums work," he said, noting cinema studies dates back 50 years, while museum studies is a new field.

Given the dearth of knowledge about local history in the United States, there would seem to be a huge opportunity for talented curators of the future to reshape how Americans conceive the urban environments where they live, and the role history plays within them. If successful, their effect could be as dramatic as the influence of any other narrative medium, driving public conversations and reshaping long held understandings, despite the fact that museums are seldom remarked upon in discussions of cultural influence.

If there is an exception to that observation, it is New York City and its museums. Their prominence is the result of the inspired efforts of countless people across centuries. Among them is Richard Rabinowitz, a significant curator at the city's oldest museum. His future work, on whatever subject he tackles after the age of revolutions, is likely to be as provocative as the exhibits discussed in this article.

"There's an important spiritual moment in your life when you realize that you've got a limited amount of time left. I'm not in preparation for anything. This is real life," he told me. "With age, I've become much more self-confident about raising these difficult issues. I trust my instinct for what will really dislodge and reconfigure the visitor's connection to this story, and that's the kind of history I'm interested in doing.

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