I've seen some popular exhibits at the New-York Historical Society, but yesterday I encountered the first show that had me waiting in line to get into the exhibition gallery: GRATEFUL DEAD: NOW PLAYING AT THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
Admittedly, part of the explanation for the line is that the the show was mounted in a relatively small space. Still, it was the lure of the Dead that drew dozens of visitors to the museum on a cold and windy afternoon. What they found was a great taste of holdings from the Grateful Dead Archive at UC-Santa Cruz and interesting lessons on the band's connections to New York City.
You enter the exhibit by passing a giant photo of the Fillmore East marquee, taken in 1969, announcing shows by the Byrds; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Jimi Hendrix and the Dead. I was impressed, but even more impressed to learn, to my surprise, that the Dead played at the Columbia takeover in 1968.
The show does a good job of sketching out such associations between the Dead and Gotham, but it does an even better job of show the band's complex cultural history. The Dead's reputation for psychedelics and extended jams sometimes overshadowed the eclecticism of their music, their deep relationship to their fans, and their innovative business models.
GRATEFUL DEAD gets at all of this with intelligent labels that are enthusiastic without being worshipful. It also deploys an impressive array of artifacts that allow visitors to explore the band's complexity: Pigpen's harmonica and a Warner Brothers contract citing the name of one Jerome Garcia; plans for the short-lived but impressive Wall of Sound; and a collection of letters from Deadheads.
My favorite artifact was a folding pyramid built in memory of the Dead's concert at the pyramids on 16 September 1978. One day later, Anwar El Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel signed the Camp David accords, which led to a cool but real peace between the two countries. The pyramid reads, on one side, "The living thank the Dead for the first chance at peace in 30 years."
The Dead archive at UC-Santa Cruz is still in development. When it is fully open, it promises to be a great resource for researchers with interests in everything from the Dead to business to the politics of fandom. For now, your best bet is to visit GRATEFUL DEAD at the Historical Society. Open through July 4, 2010.