A black and white photo, which shows many cars in the queue, taken by a father who, in this long period of quarantine, plays with his son. Here, if we change our point of view even a little, we see a daily scene of a busy and chaotic New York street, where the gray turns yellow and black, enlightened by the colors of the neon.
A month after my premature departure from New York, fleeing the incipient epidemic of Covid-19, the sad end of my American dream, it is natural to wonder about the matter, trying to find some answers to make sense of this quarantine full of “What ifs…”.
I am certainly not the only one to have lived surreal days, torn between fear and the desire to stay, therefore I will spare you the details. The only thing I want and I can remember is my disbelief in packing those bags, in an afternoon spent peeling off posters and putting aside clothes and ambitions that have never been achieved.
Today, a month later, I wonder why I didn’t visit the Guggenheim before leaving. Then I try to remember what my subway line was, how it felt to walk in Central Park, and why I strongly wanted to go to New York and then everything seems like a fuzzy memory as in a restless dream. Today, confined within the walls of my room, I even begin to doubt if I’ve ever really been to New York.
In these two months, I have probably experienced only the first phase of life in New York, the most difficult and most exciting one, when you still have to find your place in a society that they have described to you as legendary. Of the Big Apple is usually said: if you are not in New York you are nowhere. Here, I was in New York but I swear to you that at least the first month I felt “nowhere”. In an attempt to build a semblance of everyday life, I inevitably lived as the last arrived, wandering in a city without being able to really grasp it, without being able to look it in the eye.
This is because New York is more fragile than we expect, it is a great social experiment never seen before, a complex gear where dozens of nationalities and cultures often coexist in harmony and disagreement. If Paris and London are the symbols of the new cosmopolitan center, America and her New York are its sublimation.
Questions, contradictions are now the priority of New York and its cultural institutions. Who devised New York? Who lives it today? Who made New York the capital of the western world?
In fact, the different “New Yorks” known so far are many. There is the New York of fashion, the one of Sex and the City, the one of rich people, the one of poor people, the one of those who do not even speak English. There is the New York of art galleries and the New York of avant-garde architecture. And then there is the New York of great museums, those full of European masterpieces, those of patrons and “concerts in the galleries”, those that organize more cocktail parties than exhibitions, where each conference has a cost to empty the pockets of any student.
Right there, next to European masterpieces, there is the New York of history and cultural museums, which may seem negligible to many, considered the museums to be visited “if I have time left”. Beware of such advice from tour operators, because it is these institutions that allow the city today to build a new sense of community, forging aware citizens rather than just intellectuals.
It all began with the great experiment of the Anacostia Museum, the result of one of the meetings of the American Association of Museums and established in 1967 in a converted cinema in southeastern Washington DC, as the first neighborhood museum. It is part of the Smithsonian cultural institution, the same organization that at the time wondered how to bring the Latin and Afro-American communities of the suburbs into museums. These communities were often very poor, but the reason for their poor cultural involvement did not depend on the ticket price. In fact, the new visitors had to make long journeys by public transportation in order to reach the city center. And once they arrived at the museum, they would find a cultural heritage insignificant to them, one in which it would have been difficult to identify. At the time, the only artistic and cultural movements presented in the great museums were just European or anyway western, acquisitions that were often illegitimate or inconsistent with the stories of the cities in which they were preserved. Little was the space dedicated to the Orient or the African arts.
Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian, therefore, decided to found a museum right in the heart of the suburb of Anacostia, to create an active cultural point of reference in a territory in which citizens could identify. The museum had a very simple collection, it was mostly travelling exhibitions on cardboard panels, but its strength laid in its activities. Over time, the museum became a true meeting point for the community, with exhibitions focused on the history of the Anacostia district.
The inhabitants themselves were called to make their contribution. A special committee was created, called the Neighborhood Advisory Committee, composed mainly of very young citizens, the Youth Advisory Council, who collaborate with the curators for conceiving programs and exhibitions.
Projections, debates, concerts and lessons open to all were organized. “This thing called Jazz”, or “The Rat: Man’s invited afflictions” are just some of the virtuous examples of the Anacostia Museum. Problems such as violence, crime, inequalities and drugs are fundamental in the narrative of the neighborhood museum. Besides, the museum became a privileged observation point for institutions to understand the features of the community and to solve its problems. A documentation center was founded, and the museum became soon a meeting place. Today, the case of Anacostia turns out to be a successful model that follows the principles of the movement of the French Nouvelle Muséologie. The museum transforms the visitor into an active protagonist.
Like the Anacostia Museum, today the Museum of the City of New York, founded in 1923, tries to make some order, to give meaning to the stories of its communities, to explain them, to tell them. The themes covered by the museum range from baseball history to the Stonewall affair, until the exhibition Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers, an anticipation of the 2020 census, which highlights the importance of the so-called “data” to study the demographic profile and social life of the city.
Needless to say, the museum raises interesting questions, such as the facts of the Activist New York section, which deals with the history of the social struggles that have marked the city, questions that tourists would never have expected to find in the rooms of a museum.
Established with the principle of “first the visitor, then the work of art”, perhaps American museums understood immediately that they had to know how to talk to their public, respecting the mission, with which the museums are invested, to reflect on today’s society, to become the social vector of a complex cultural system, torn between emancipation and inequality, and to represent a model for a world without wars.
For this reason, New York is for many a dream with the traits of the cruellest truth. We are looking for Scorsese’s, Woody Allen’s New York, but we soon realize that, after all, the only New York we can live is “our New York”, and we are inexorably disappointed. Forced into a daily life that leaves little room for imagination, we realize that perhaps we are not up to New York, or that perhaps New York is not up to the legend that surrounds it.
The New York I am writing about reminds me of the city Anastasia from The invisible cities by Italo Calvino. As the Italian author writes in the chapter Cities and desire: «The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content. Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes its form from desire itself, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly, when you are only its slave ».
I am grateful to museums because they have always made me question about the relationship between history and the human being, highlighting the contradictions of systems that look perfect to us. For this reason I study museums, and doing it in New York perhaps made more sense than elsewhere. This experience, although a little unfinished, made me understand that if the halls of a large museum are a transposition of the “boroughs” of the Big Apple, then New York itself is a metaphor for adulthood and a real world more difficult and complex than we expected, but no less beautiful and exciting.