Saturday, September 5, 2009


Great museum exhibits make you think about the past in an entirely new way, and that's what Mannahatta/Manhattan does at the Museum of the City of New York. The show, presented as a partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is a stunning evocation of Manhattan's landscape and how it has changed since the arrival of Europeans. It conveys a profound lesson: the same principles that make for a healthy ecosystem--diverse species, an accommodation of interdependence--are also important to a healthy city.

Mannahatta/Manhattan blends historical research, ecological analysis, artifacts and multi-media. The show is well-designed and instructive without being heavily didactic. I marveled at the range of wetlands once found on the east side of Manhattan and the variety streams and ponds throughout the island. And it was a treat to use a special computer program that displays the show's ideas on what contemporary blocks of Manhattan might have looked like 400 years ago. (My block on East 81st Street was a woodland.)

For all its attention to nature, the show persuasively argues that Manhattan was never utterly pristine. The indigenous peoples here had their own impact on the land--from the building of villages to the burning of lands in what is today Harlem to create open fields for hunting.

The genius of the show is to show how ecological thinking leads us a conclusion that nothing--from plants to people--lives in isolation. Eventually, the factors that help or hurt one species have an impact on another.

The show is a product of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Mannahatta Project, whose Web site deserves a visit of its own. Among its many features is the program that lets you look up what any block in Manhattan might have looked like in 1609.

Mannahatta/Manhattan is up through October 12. Don't miss it.

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