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Woman Around Town: Louise Mirrer—Making History Matter

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Louise Mirrer, CEO and President of the New York Historical Society (NYHS), wrote her Ph.D. dissertation based on a mid-14th century Spanish chronicle that focused on how history gets told. She concluded in her dissertation that historians in telling history borrow from literary sources as well as eyewitness accounts. Little did she expect that someday, she’d be running a major cultural institution where she would have the opportunity to determine how history does indeed get told.

louise-mirrerHer road to the NYHS began with a career in academia. Louise earned her undergraduate degree magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. in humanities and Spanish from Stanford University, before serving in various academic posts at Fordham University, the University of Minnesota, and then as Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the City University of New York. Dick Gilder, a board member, was instrumental in bringing Louise to the NYHS, but it’s not clear who enticed whom. As Louise puts it, “Any institution that Dick was involved with would be a success. He’s a great anchor.”

The NYHS has a wonderful history. Established in 1804 as the first museum in New York, it had as its mission fostering the history of the nation and the state. To Louise, that mission still holds true. As the president she is focused on several things including sponsoring cutting-edge shows and exhibitions, and educating children and teachers on the importance of history in our lives. She points with special pride to the NYHS’s program of providing professional development for social studies teachers in the New York public schools. The NYHS, over a two-year period, afforded all 4,000 licensed, social studies teachers in New York City, the opportunity to earn professional credits, leading to both greater history expertise and improved salaries.

Louise is especially interested in “how you take facts and craft them into a story.” She cites Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals as a perfect example of an author taking something that’s not intrinsically interesting and crafting it into a story where the characters come to life.

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“History is not about just names and dates. It’s also about ideas that are open to discussion and debate.” Louise is passionate about children appreciating their own history. As she says, “Children need to understand that unlike other countries, nothing was handed down to Americans. Americans are defined by ideas that were fought over—not by ethnicity, bloodlines, or religion.” To this end, she is very excited about the soon-to-open, DiMenna Children’s Gallery. Plans call for a series of pavilions that will provide imaginative spaces with historical figures as children. For example, one of the planned protagonists is Alexander Hamilton—not as a “dead white man” but rather as Alexander Hamilton, the child/adolescent.

louise-silver2When asked to cite her favorite exhibit at the NYHS, Louise unhesitatingly mentions the “Slavery in New York” exhibit. “This exhibit broke new ground and represented cutting-edge history in that even historians weren’t aware that slavery existed in New York. It shattered—for everyone—their vision of New York.” In the early 19th century, one in every five New Yorkers was a slave. While we think of America as a nation of immigrants, Louise points out that slaves came here unwillingly. She notes the poignancy of the exhibit, “When you look at what African-Americans in New York built—from the Battery Road to Harlem and Broadway—the exhibit took a human tragedy and found a story where African-Americans can feel proud in both a metaphysical and real way.” This exhibit also happens to be the most widely-attended exhibit in the NYHS’s history.

Upcoming exhibits will include the role of New York in World War II, “Nueva New York,” which will focus on New York’s strong ties to the Spanish-speaking world both historically and today (opening in September 2010), and a polemical examination of the American, French, and Haitian revolutions (opening in the fall of 2011).

Aside from big, block-buster exhibits and history education, Louise also would like to showcase the NYHS’s huge collection of 19th century art, which rivals the Metropolitan Museum. And, if that weren’t enough to keep her busy, the NYHS is also undergoing a major renovation that will enhance its physical characteristics without compromising its landmark building status. When completed, there will be bigger windows, wider doorways, enhanced accessibility, a new, dining facility, and as Louise puts it, “a more open and inviting institution.” Obviously all of the plans, exhibits, and programs require money. The NYHS’s $90 million capital campaign is nearly completed.

Since its founding, the NYHS has gone through transformations, but it continues to serve its mission. Under Louise Mirrer—and hopefully others in the future—the NYHS provides a “place to pause and think about how our nation came to be and the role New York played in its making.” It provides us with a wonderful example of how history gets told.

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Top photo, left to right, Berhard Schwartz, President Bill Clinton, Louise Mirrer, Philip Mirrer-Singer, and Emily Kimball. The Clinton photo was taken on Oct. 7, 2009 at the 2009 History Makers Gala, which honored two Presidents: Clinton and Lincoln. It also opened the exhibit: Lincoln and New York.

Second photo from top, Louise Mirrer with two members of The Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh (on left) and Bob Weir. The Grateful Dead photo was taken on Oct. 29, 2009 at a reception. In March 2010, there will be an exhibit at the NYHS called: The Grateful Dead Now Playing at the New York Historical Society. It will present the first, large-scale exhibition of materials from the Grateful Dead Archive.

Photo credits: Laura Mozes Photography

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions:

Favorite New York Restaurant: Destino’s, First Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets. It’s near my house and has great food, décor, and ambience.
Favorite Place to Shop: The Showroom of Sylvia Heisel, 214 W. 39th Street. Sylvia designs clothes that are slightly edgy but feminine at the same time, mixing fabrics such as chiffons with silks.
Favorite New York Sight: The New York Historical Society, Central Park West between 76th and 77th Streets
Favorite New York Moment: The Kiss in Times Square at the end of World War II as captured by Life photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt
What You Love About New York: It never sleeps. You can get anything, anytime, and have your cake and eat it too.
What You Hate About New York: Taxi drivers on cell phones. I take the subway as much as possible.

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