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Spectacular Tiffany Lamps Light the Way: New-York Historical Society's Fourth Floor Renovation

May 2, 2017 - by Troy Segal
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I always love it when a grand old institution embraces innovation. And the New-York Historical Society—one of the town’s grandest and oldest, as its quaint name suggests—is taking a progressive approach with its permanent collection. Recently opened, the museum’s fourth floor (officially, the Henry Luce III Center) has been transformed from its former storage-like self into three spanking new galleries.

The presentation of the society’s antiques and artworks “used to be like going through a warehouse—a half-dozen chairs in deep display cases,” says Scott Duenow, Partner of PBDW Architects, which did the redesign. “People found it confusing.”

His firm completely rethought the space. Grandma’s attic, out; spacious, dramatically staged rooms, in.

tiffany lamps new-york historical

As the centerpiece of the fourth floor, the gallery features 100 illuminated Tiffany lamps from New-York Historical’s spectacular collection displayed within a dramatically lit jewel-like space.  Photo: Corrado Serra.

Hitting visitors as they emerge onto the new floor is its highlight, both literally and figuratively—the Gallery of Tiffany Lamps. It had me at its opening display: three of the glowing, stained-glass beauties on a platform, with a freestanding, illuminated glass staircase (designed by Czech architect Eva Jiricná) curving upwards behind them—a stunning juxtaposition of glassworks old and new. Other lamps drop from the ceiling or stand inside circular, full-length cases within the darkened room. Etched with a frosted design, those transparent soaring steps lead up to a second floor and a delightful interactive display that lets you design (well, colorize the pattern of) your own Dragonflies lamp.

Along with its 100 lights, the gallery includes paneled info about Clara Driscoll, behind-the-scenes designer of many of the Tiffany lampshades—which provides a nice thematic bridge to another new space, the Center for Women’s History. This area features wall cases of items and memorabilia related to famed femmes, and a changing major exhibit (currently, Saving Washington, a tribute to First Lady and hostess-with-the-mostest Dolley Madison).

New-York Historical Society, Fourth Floor

 Photo: Corrado Serra.

Down the Hall of American Silver, a central corridor lined with cases of gleaming, massive trophies and tableware (think trays and tureens) on both sides, lies the North Gallery. It’s an airy, arched-ceiling room that houses art and artifacts from the museum’s permanent collection. Yes, they’re still behind glass display cases. However, they’re organized not by type, but by thought-provoking theme: “Seats of Power” (chairs and busts of notables), “Slavery in NY,” even “9/11.” Some, like “Childhood”, are filled with objects (though they never seem crammed), others are quite simple. My favorite, “Recreation”, conveys the bicycle craze of the 1890s with just a vintage wheeler and a lady’s long-skirted cycling costume.

Although there’s a wealth of captions, the 15 "niches," as the museum dubs them, are each complemented by touch screens that put the display into deeper historical context. The overall effect is that of a series of still lifes—some of them epic, some of them capturing moments in the city’s history—and all of them interesting.

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