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Telling overlooked stories at New-York Historical Society

The museum is on a mission “not to repeat the history that history textbooks tell

Mirrer Louise New York Historical Society
Louise Mirrer. Image credit Buck Ennis

The New-York Historical Society Museum and Library has announced a $140m expansion of its building on Central Park West. This will add more than 70,000 square feet of space to the institution. It will also house New York‘s first museum dedicated to LGBTQ+ history and culture, the American LGBTQ+ Museum.

Designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, the expansion includes additional classrooms, galleries, study areas and a state-of-the-art storage facility for the museum’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.

The expansion project will begin in 2022.

During construction, the American LGBTQ+ Museum will team up with the New-York Historical Society to develop programming in the museum’s existing spaces.

Dr Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the institution, spoke to blooloop about her career, the route that brought her to her current role, the museum’s journey, its mission and programming, as well as the expansion.

Joining the New-York Historical Society

Mirrer, who joined the New-York Historical Society as President and CEO in June 2004, holds a double PhD from Stanford, a graduate Diploma from Cambridge, and a BA magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania. She is also an Honorary Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

Under her leadership, the institution has reinvigorated its commitment to greater public understanding of history and its relevance today, as well as to the support and encouragement of historical scholarship, and the education of young people.

New York Historical Society. PBDW architect renovations
Image credit Jon Wallen

“I’m an academic by background and training,” she says. “My speciality area was medieval Spain, Portugal and the rest of Western Europe. Very far from contemporary America and New York! Nevertheless, what I spent my academic career thinking and writing about was how history gets told. It was all very theoretical.

“So, when I joined the New-York Historical Society, I had the pleasure of applying in real life what I’d spent my academic career thinking about theoretically. The joy of actually getting to tell history is something that I hadn’t had the opportunity to do as an academic. In the end, despite the chasm between the Middle Ages and America, I had lots of insight into telling history from that theoretical work.”

A huge responsibility

New York Historical Society North Gallery
North Gallery. Image credit Jon Wallen

She came to the New-York Historical Society at a point when the institution had succeeded in overcoming a difficult financial period.

“It had a balanced budget; it had a decent board,” she says. “Several new trustees had just joined the board. They were the ones responsible for inviting me to take the job as president and CEO. One of them in particular, Dick Gilder, had known me in my previous job when I was the provost to the City University of New York.

“He had a lot of interest in starting a history-themed high school in the Bronx. Most people thought that could never happen, and we made it happen. So that was my entrée, and here I am today doing getting the chance to do amazing things.”

There is, Mirrer maintains, a huge responsibility in telling history:

“There are many examples of institutions and people who don’t do a very good job of telling it. That is something that we resolve to address.”

Looking at things differently

Mirrer outlines the direction that New-York Historical Society is taking under her leadership:

“I was at the helm of a decision not to repeat the history that history textbooks tell. Instead, we want to look for the stories that tend to be left out. When you look at history this way, you see things differently and uncover a lot of information. That enables you to get a better sense of what kinds of things actually happened, how things got done, whose agency made change. We started doing that.”

North Gallery New York Historical Society
North Gallery. Image credit Corrado Serra

She inherited an exhibition on Alexander Hamilton:

“It was a wonderful exhibition, which was almost at the end of its run when I joined New-York Historical. Unfortunately, Lin-Manuel Miranda was not around at the time.”

However, Ron Chernow, whose biography of the American Founding Father inspired the hip-hop musical sensation, was:

“He was a great partner for our exhibition.”

Slavery in New York

Mirrer used the lessons from the Hamilton exhibition as the inspiration for her first full exhibition, Slavery in New York, including a collection of materials relating to the African Free School in New York. Founded in 1787 by members of the New York Manumission Society, including Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, who believed the children of enslaved people could and should be educated, it went against the prevailing ideas of the 18th century.

“They started opening these African Free Schools,” she explains:

“They developed a wonderful model for education that depended largely on older students mentoring younger ones. The material, everything, is in our collection. It’s really quite extraordinary. Looking at that was the inspiration for what was my first exhibition.”

Slavery in New York spanned the period from the 1600s to 1827, when slavery was legally abolished in New York State. Its focus was on the rediscovery of the collective and personal experiences of Africans and African-Americans in New York City.

“As an academic, I have the good fortune to have access to a lot of academic work. There had just been the discovery of the African burial grounds in New York. Until this point, no one had really had any idea that there were enslaved people in New York City. It was thought to be associated with the South. But actually, New York was a major centre for enslavement, the slave trade, and much else.

“That was my first full exhibition. Again, it depended on a decision to tell histories that were less well-known or not known at all. We’ve continued along those lines.”

The Centre for Women’s History

The Centre for Women’s History is, Mirrer explains, very much along the same lines:

“What are the stories that the history books are not telling? We know that women account for roughly half the population. We did a scan of history textbooks and discovered that a tiny percentage, around 13% of the written discourse in those books was dedicated to women. So where were they, and what were they doing?”

We did a scan of history textbooks and discovered that a tiny percentage, around 13% of the written discourse in those books was dedicated to women. So where were they, and what were they doing?

“We know that women didn’t get the right to vote until just a little more than a hundred years ago in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t do anything. They did quite a lot. It was just another obvious unoccupied niche.

“We decided that we would develop a centre for women’s history, which would be both a place where scholars could use our collections and other collections with fellowships to push forward the frontiers of knowledge around women’s history, but also somewhere to develop a gallery within which we would tell women’s history on a rotating basis.”

Telling new stories at New-York Historical Society

The first exhibition was on Dolley Madison, the wife of James Madison, President of the United States from 1809 to 1817. She held Washington social functions to which she invited members of both political parties, fostering conversation and, essentially, initiating the concept of bipartisan cooperation

“It was really eye-opening for virtually everyone. In the US, Dolley Madison’s name is on a kind of ice cream that people remember from the past.”

Oval Office replica NYHC
Oval Office replica. Image credit Glenn Castellano

It is a trivial legacy for an influential woman:

“The truth is that she used the agency that she took as a woman to create social occasions in a way that made a big difference, using the White House as a place to bridge a very partisan US, much like we have today.

“We have to remember that the US was still in the experimental stage. She played a very important role in cementing together a very fractured US and really promoting her husband’s presidency, which was not a strong and well-regarded presidency.

“The Centre for Women’s History has now become a great model. There has been a movement for more than a decade to create a women’s history museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. But it’s going to be a while before that happens. We are already there.”

A much-needed expansion

The $140 million expansion is, she says, exciting:

“We live in a building dating back to 1904, built for the purposes of the New-York Historical Society. This was a time when ‘society’ was a word that meant something, which it really doesn’t today, not to us, at least. At that time, ‘society’ meant a closed group of members. The building was never really meant to accommodate the public.”

There have been several previous expansions.

View from 76th Street - NYHC expansion project
View from 76th Street. Credit Alden Studios for Robert A.M. Stern Architects

“In 1937, we grew two wings and a library stacks tower. At the same time, the New-York Historical Society purchased a 10,000 square foot plot of land.”

The idea was that the museum could build a space dedicated to education on it:

“There were a few failed attempts, but there really never was the wherewithal to do anything. It has been in the back of my mind that we need additional space. We were living in a building that was not meant to accommodate the public. Although we renovated and tried to modernise as best as possible, we were always going to be stuck with an inadequate number of bathrooms. That is horrendous for accommodating large student groups, and the people who stream to our public programme nights.

“The bottom line is that we needed more space. However, we also needed a partner, because financially it was still going to be a very difficult task.”

New-York Historical Society and the American LGBTQ+ join forces

Fortunately, at this time Mirrer met Richard Burns, head of the board of the American LGBTQ+ Museum:

“It was great timing; we had just commemorated the Stonewall uprising with three exhibitions, which many of the board members had seen. So, they knew we were serious in our interest in telling this history. We were also on the way to developing a new exhibition on the Cherry Grove archive. Cherry Grove was a hamlet on Fire Island that was hospitable to LGBTQ+ people at a time when it was illegal to be gay.”

“We already had our sites focused on telling the LGBTQ+ story. This was a group with an ambition to start a museum. However, they didn’t have either the financial wherewithal or any of the accoutrements of the museum. They had a lot of will, they had consultants, but they didn’t have a curatorial staff or a collection. We realised that our ambitions to tell this important history were thoroughly aligned and that we would make great partners for one another. We could join forces to fundraise together.

“This was the genesis of the partnership.”

Fundraising for the expansion of New-York Historical Society

 Having formed an alliance, the parties embarked on fundraising:

“We haven’t raised all the money we need to raise by far, but we certainly have raised awareness. That should be a prelude to successful fundraising.”

plans for expansion at New York Historical Society
View from CPW. Credit Alden Studios for Robert A.M. Stern Architects

The LGBTQ+ story is, she points out, very much aligned with the stories told by New-York Historical Society about the different groups struggling for civil rights in the United States:

“The story of the LGBTQ+ community’s struggle for civil rights is as moving as it is difficult. And it is a story that still goes on, marriage equality aside. There are, unfathomably to most people, still, anti-sodomy laws on the books in some US states.”

Learning from the past

It is a cliché to say that those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat a version of it, but also true:

“In every instance, when people learn about the past, they have a completely different understanding of where they are right now,” she says.

In every instance, when people learn about the past, they have a completely different understanding of where they are right now

“That certainly happened in the case of the exhibition that we did on slavery in New York, and subsequent exhibitions on that topic. Once people understand the history of race in the United States, they begin to feel less casual about racial tensions today; more forgiving and understanding of the tremendous will on the part of black people to secure their rights as Americans.

“We believe the same will happen once we are able to tell this important history.”

Education at New-York Historical Society

She details some of the programmes and educational initiatives:

“We have already entered into a contract with the New York City Department of Education to develop an LGBTQ+ curriculum. They have recognized the need to educate young people around LGBTQ+ history. So, we are developing a programme that will be part of the curriculum in high schools across the city.”

N-YHS outdoor exhibition Safe Haven New-York Historical Society
Outdoor exhibition Safe Haven. Image credit Glenn Castellano

“There are more than a million children in the New York City, public schools. Not all of them are in high school, but significant numbers are. That is going on right now, going forward. We will dedicate part of the new building space to classrooms. This will enable us to amplify and expand the numbers of stories we tell in those classrooms.”

Teaching the teachers

“It will also enable us to teach the teachers. It’s great to reach the students, but teachers have a new group of students every year. These are stories that can be hard for a teacher to tell. They don’t inquire about the personal backgrounds of their students, so tend to shy away from difficult topics. Even the civil war tends not to get taught very much in schools because it’s a tough subject.”

A lot of the educational effort will, therefore, focus on professional development training for teachers.

Holiday Express - Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection New-York Historical Society
Holiday Express – Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection

“We have a great strategy at New-York Historical for teaching,” Mirrer says::

“Our motto is ‘objects tell stories.’ Our brief is to collect constantly. We have extraordinary collections as it is, dating back to the 16th century, and have some marvellous artefacts of indigenous cultures. Our brief, really, is to secure the right collection of objects that we can use as props for engaging young people. And we’re doing that right now.”

Amplifying the collection at New-York Historical Society

“One of the people in attendance at the groundbreaking of the new building was the widow of Edie Windsor, who fought the battle for marriage equality.”

Edith “Edie” Windsor was an American LGBT rights activist and IBM technology. She was the lead plaintiff in the 2013 Supreme Court of the United States case the United States v. Windsor, which overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. This was considered a landmark legal victory for the same-sex marriage movement in the United States. The Obama Administration and federal agencies extended rights, privileges and benefits to married same-sex couples because of the decision.

N-YHS Gallery of Tiffany Lamps
Gallery of Tiffany Lamps. Image credit Corrado Serra

“It is a privilege to be in contact with her,” Mirrer says:

“She has key artefacts of Edie’s fight. We will be amplifying our collection around the LGBTQ+ story significantly as a result of the new building. That is going to enable us to be able to tell this story.”

Connecting with new audiences

Two orientation films currently show in a loop in the auditorium:

“One of them is 400 years of New York history in 18 minutes. The other is women’s history in 18 minutes, leading up to suffrage. What we would really like to do is to develop a third orientation film, telling this story. When students come into the building, sit down in the auditorium, and see a film, it positions them for the rest of their visit.”

Patricia D. Klingenstein Library
Patricia D. Klingenstein Library

The New-York Historical Society uses handling collections to reach and connect with new audiences:

“We have developed a touch collection, which is a collection of exact replicas of objects in our collection. We deploy our educators all over the city. Staten Island students rarely come into Manhattan, but we send our educators there. We also do classroom programmes and whole-school programmes where the entire school takes part in learning history from us.”

The New-York Historical Society and COVID-19

Tiffany Dogwood Standing Lamp New-York Historical Society
Tiffany Dogwood Standing Lamp

The COVID pandemic hit the day before a major teacher training event at the museum.

“We had to close our doors very abruptly on 13 March 2020,” says Mirrer. “At that point, the city and the state were not focussing on closing institutions. But we ourselves realised that it was not going to be safe to invite people into our building.

“It took the Department of Education forever to figure out how to deliver remote instruction. I’m very proud of our education department here. Within 24 hours, they migrated all of the materials that they were going to be using for this massive professional development programme for teachers on-site, onto an online platform.

“It is a tribute to the young people we have in our education department. They are highly adept at manipulating our online platforms. The teachers were remote, but they all got what they would have found here.”

Online education

Encouraged by this success, New-York Historical Society proceeded to migrate all its educational programs online:

“We realised that we could reach many more people through online instruction and programming. We have done something else. Since not every child has access to the internet, we are about to embark on a partnership with some TV stations, including CUNY TV [a non-commercial educational television station in New York City] to deliver our online programming to students on television, because virtually everyone has a TV set.”

Beekman Coach New-York Historical Society
Beekman Coach restored and on view. Image credit Glenn Castellano

“We are very attentive to reaching under-served communities, and those are the strategies we’ve used.”

A positive outlook for the future

Having studied history, and having explored topics such as slavery, the subjugation of women and the struggles of the LGBTQ+ communities, Mirrer says that, on balance, she feels progress has been made:

“It’s painful to look at all the progress that we could have made and have failed to make; we suffer from a range of social and racial ills that should have been resolved long ago. On the other hand, if you look at US history from its start, we have really made progress.”

The telling of history is so important. Because bringing these stories to people’s attention is another way of motivating people to change for the better

“One thing, perhaps the best thing that democracy has provided us with, is the ability to protest things that we don’t like. We are not one of those authoritarian nations where you cannot protest without fear of being killed. It is possible that that will happen here, but not likely, and not to the same extent as elsewhere. I’m hopeful.

“I think that is why the telling of history is so important. Because bringing these stories to people’s attention is another way of motivating people to change for the better.”

All images kind courtesy of New-York Historical Society. Top image: Women’s Voices – Center for Women’s History at New-York Historical Society. Credit Corrado Serra

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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