NYC Museum Exhibits a Cemetery, and with it, America’s Past

Since I’m writing about the experiences of late Victorian American widows for my MA thesis, I knew I had to check out the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition “A Beautiful Way to Go: New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery.” I had expected to see mostly two-dimensional images of tombstones (albeit beautiful, impressive, and design-historically important ones), but the exhibition rose well above the obvious.

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Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, was imagined in 1838 and opened in 1840, in the early years of this country’s “rural cemetery” movement. It served as a burial ground; a free place to view art (sculpture, tombstone engravings, mausoleum architecture); an open, airy space in an unsanitary, rapidly growing city; and a landscaped park for the recreational (ie, walking/wandering) needs of polite society. Beginning in the museum’s first-floor southern hallway, the exhibition includes telling ephemeral materials: visitor guides and souvenir booklets exemplify the cemetery’s role as tourist destination.

This opening hall also includes commissioned panoramic photographs by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao. These are fine, certainly lovely artworks in themselves, but they might have been better suited juxtaposed against the Hudson River School painters’ images of the cemetery, which are hidden along a back wall of the main gallery space. How are today’s artists inspired by the cemetery compared to those of more than a century ago? How do representations of this 175-year-old cemetery differ in old and new media?

Upon walking into the main, enclosed gallery space, one sees that Green-Wood holds more than tombstones and mausoleums. Suddenly the visitor is faced with an array of glass cases filled with seemingly disparate objects: a camera, cards, newspaper clippings, toys, lithographs, a typewriter, and other objects.  Although the wall text does not clearly explain this unique curatorial vision (as it should), shown are remnants of the deceased who lie under those stones and behind the mausoleum walls. They are the creators of today’s America, in countless ways.

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Among many other well-known and lesser-known figures are:
Henry E. Steinway (1797–1811) and five members of his family, founder of Steinway Pianos; the key to the family’s mausoleum, which has room for 256 interments, was on display
Duncan Phyfe (1768–1854), cabinetmaker well-known for the lyre motif on the backs of his chairs
Boss Tweed (1823–1878), the infamous corrupt New York City politician
Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), pastor and abolitionist
Ward McAllister (1827–1895), society figure who coined the term “the four hundred,” which noted the most significant members of New York society
Thomas Adams (1818–1905), creator of chewing gum (!)
F. A. O. Schwarz (1836–1911), toy merchant and founder of the eponymous store
Susan Smith McKinney Stewart (1847–1918), the first African American female doctor in New York State
Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933), designer known for his work in “Favrile glass,” and son of Tiffany & Co. founder; the other major stained glass designer of the period, John LaFarge, is also buried at Green-Wood, though not showcased
John Underwood (1857–1937), typewriter manufacturer
Frank Morgan (1890–1949), actor most well known as the Wizard in the 1939 film Wizard of Oz
Walter Dorwin Teague (1883–1960), industrial designer
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), artist
Paul Jabara (1948–1992), actor/singer/songwriter, writer of “It’s Raining Men” and “Last Dance” (the latter softly played from a speaker above Jabara’s label)

These figures shaped the political, social, cultural, and material histories of New York, America, and in some cases, the world. But their common ground is that they all rest at Green-Wood Cemetery. The thread might seem thin, but grouping them together here has shown that Green-Wood is more than a cemetery, and it is more than a study center for art and architecture enthusiasts or inspiration ground for fine artists: it, like so many other burial grounds, is the keeper of those who affected the way we live today. One wonders what other figures we might find if we, like so many Victorians did, wander amongst the graves?

While it sounds like such a creepy Victorian tradition to use a cemetery as a tourist spot (exhibition text explains that at peak times, guards were hired to keep tourists away from mourners), Green-Wood remains a major visitor destination. There are even ticketed tours!

This exhibition is as much a random selection of America’s influential figures as it is about the cemetery itself. Both aspects are fascinating, and both are worth your time—but there isn’t much time left! The exhibition closes this Sunday, October 13.

PS: Bonuses: a beautiful crepe mourning dress in a decidedly fashionable style and a memorial hair work brooch. Even better: you can use two stereopticons displaying images of Green-Wood and portraits of those buried there, which is just a fun thing to do.

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