Friday, June 5, 2009

New Amsterdam/New York

Efforts to trace the character of the United States to one or another of the early colonies usually lead to oversimplifications. Are we the greedy Englishmen of Jamestown, New England Puritans building a City on a Hill, or the cosmopolitan descendants of New Amsterdam? Amsterdam/New Amsterdam: the Worlds of Henry Hudson, now at the Museum of the City of New York, wisely steers clear of such generalizations. Still, it makes a good case that "the issues that the Dutch experiment tested on the continent centuries ago are still relevant today, as New York works to sustain a society that is ever more diverse, adaptive, inventive, and--in its own way--as tumultuous as New Amsterdam ever was."

Amsterdam/New Amsterdam is a rich and satisfying show that situates New Amsterdam in Dutch and North American contexts. Organizing themes such as "Living," "Cultural Crossroads," "Centers Of Commerce" and "Authority and Resistance" admit a wide range of objects and a strong analysis.

Presented in a space that that brings to mind a sailing ship, Amsterdam/New Amsterdam explores New York's Dutch antecedents without worshiping them. The vaunted Dutch sense of toleration, the exhibit argues, was more an urban phenomenon than a rural one. The Dutch of New Amsterdam kept slaves. And at the bottom of New Amsterdam's diversity was something more economic than is always recognized: the Dutch encouraged different kinds of people to come here because the colony wasn't enough of a moneymaker to attract people from Holland. Hard-headed business judgments, in addition to cosmopolitanism, made New Amsterdam a seaport for men and women of many nations.

The show is so rich in artifacts that it sometimes seems crowded, but at its best the curators have used objects and voices in creative ways. I was especially touched by recordings of readings of testimonies and reminiscences written down by inhabitants of New Amsterdam centuries ago.

What emerges for this show is a city that is more than a monument to greed and less than a shining city on a hill. If that sounds like New York City today, then perhaps we have inherited a great deal from New Amsterdam. Amsterdam/New Amsterdam is open until 27 September 2009.

1 comment:

Hulser, public historian said...

I like that "more than greed" and "less than shining" judgment of Dutch NY's history. It applies to more than that era as well, and marks the kind of rational and balanced assessments that historians who look at all the evidence must make.