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Guide to the New-York Historical Society Museum Department Records
1765, 1830-2018
 NYHS-RG 20

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400


New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Margaret Kaczorowski, Katherine Palm and Larry Weimer

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on May 21, 2021 using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical/Historical Note

From its founding in 1804, the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) collected paintings, drawings and other museum objects, more commonly referred to as "cabinet" objects in the early 19th century. The collecting of these objects became significantly more ambitious in the late 1850s when N-YHS finally moved from a series of relatively small rented or donated quarters into a building of its own at 2nd Avenue and 11th Street in lower Manhattan. Almost immediately upon occupying this new building, N-YHS acquired the art collection formerly held by the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts, which was built on the private collection of merchant Luman Reed and included such works as Thomas Cole's Course of Empire series.

Despite N-YHS's stated focus in its founding documents on American and New York state history, its actual collecting often deviated from this charge. Ancient coins and medals and natural history objects were among the early deviations. With the expanded space at the 2nd Avenue building, and perhaps with the expectation of establishing a Museum of Antiquities, Science and Art in Central Park, in the 1860s N-YHS acquired many artifacts that would be obviously out of scope by the twentieth century. These included the Abbott Collection of Egyptian antiquities, James Lenox's ancient Nineveh sculptures, and European Old Masters from Thomas J. Bryan's collection. But this acquisitiveness also led in 1863 to the purchase of one of N-YHS's greatest treasures, the watercolors John J. Audubon had drawn for his Birds of America.

N-YHS's 2nd Avenue building allowed for free public access to the galleries, though as the collection grew through the 19th century the building became increasingly cluttered. But more important than the limited physical plant were the broader resource limitations, especially financial, which in turn led to limits on the ability to care for the collection. Into the early twentieth century, N-YHS operated with a very small staff of less than ten people, none of which were conservators or museum specialists. And as N-YHS began to plan for the installation of its museum collection in its new home on Central Park West in 1908, some members began to question the relevance to N-YHS of the non-United States historical objects. Indeed, the large Nineveh sculptures were left behind in the 2nd Avenue building, moved uptown only when the old building was sold in 1912. By 1916, criticism was being directed at N-YHS over the deterioration of the Egyptian artifacts, leading to the hiring of Caroline Ransom Williams and others to conserve and catalogue those objects.

The late 1930s were watershed years for the museum, as they were for N-YHS in general. The large bequest received from the Thompson family in the late 1930s allowed not only for the expansion of the Central Park West building and its gallery space, but the expansion of staff in support of the collections. In 1939, for the first time in its history, N-YHS put in place a professional museum staff, including a Curator of Paintings (Donald A. Shelley), a Museum Curator & Registrar (H. Maxson Holloway), a Painting Restorer (Ingrid M. Held), and assistants. This new organizational structure is reflected in the archives: the bulk of the Museum Department records date from 1939 and later as these new professionals established their own files and records; earlier museum-related records were maintained in the central accession ledgers, correspondence, and other files maintained by the Librarian, who was N-YHS's executive leader to that time. Still, for most of the following decades, the Museum Department staff amounted to fewer than ten people, with only one curator, Richard J. Koke, in place from 1949 to 1969. In 1970, Mary C. Black, a folk arts authority, joined Koke in the department as Curator of Paintings, Sculpture and the Decorative Arts. About the same time, in August 1972, N-YHS received accreditation from the American Association of Museums (AAM).

The 1930s were important in other ways for the museum as well. Deaccessioning of out of scope objects came to the fore. When the Central Park West building closed in 1937 for renovations and expansion, the Egyptian collection was loaned to the Brooklyn Museum. It never returned as N-YHS eventually sold it and other artifacts to the Museum in the 1940s. An ancient medical papyrus was donated to the New York Academy of Medicine. By the 1940s, the possibility of disposing of some or all of the European artworks was being explored, which eventually occurred over time from the 1960s through the 1990s. The deaccessions of the 1990s, not only of European Old Masters but of silver and other objects as well, were highly controversial in part because they coincided with N-YHS's fiscal crisis of the time. The severity of N-YHS's financial problems led to the closing of the museum galleries in January 1993 and, a month later, its withdrawal from the AAM's accreditation program. Deaccessions of out of scope collections came to be recognized as a necessary part of any recovery so auctions moved forward in the mid-1990s within a rigorous formal approval structure within N-YHS and with oversight by the New York State Attorney General.

Through the mid and late twentieth century, N-YHS was also strengthening its collection with such iconic accessions as the folk art collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman (1937 purchase), sculpture groups by John Rogers (1936 purchase), and Tiffany lamps from Egon Neustadt (1984 bequest), among many others. These objects, along with those on loan from other institutions, were installed in hundreds of exhibitions across the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. More notable for an organization that seldom, if ever, loaned its objects during its first century, in the 1930s N-YHS began to lend its museum objects regularly to institutions in the United States and internationally. These loans included about one hundred of the Audubon drawings, which left N-YHS for the first time in the mid-1990s to travel to various U.S. museums.

The conservation, care and storage of the museum collection received expanded attention in the mid-1980s with the hiring of a full time conservator, Holly Hotchner. Additional staff was later added and conservation labs created, which continue to the present. Hotchner became Museum Director in 1989, and the Department of Prints, Photographs and Architecture (commonly known as the Print Room) was transferred organizationally from the Library to the Museum, where it would remain until its return to the Library in 1998. Despite the many initiatives of the time, N-YHS's financial difficulties were too deep, leading to the loss of much of the staff and the closing of the galleries in 1993. Nonetheless, thanks in significant part to city and state funding, N-YHS's situation stabilized, key renovations and structural improvements were made to the building, and the galleries re-opened in May 1995 with the exhibition of N-YHS's collection highlights arranged to illustrate American history, Treasury of the Past. Major renovations continued in the 1990s culminating in 2000 with the opening of the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, which housed nearly 40,000 objects for public access. Behind the scenes, collections management moved into the twenty-first century with the implementation of a desktop computer application for object level control.