New-York Historical Society Establishes Institute Dedicated to Community Activism

In June, the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library announced the formation of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Institute for New York City History, Politics, and Community Activism. Part of the Institute will be an archive focusing on community activism and movements.

New-York Historical Society exterior
New-York Historical Society
Photo by Jon Wallen

In June, the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library announced the formation of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Institute for New York City History, Politics, and Community Activism. Part of the Institute will be an archive focusing on community activism and movements.

The Institute was the brainchild of Dr. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, who wanted to create a center of scholarship and broaden public knowledge around the importance of social movements to enact change, said New-York Historical President and CEO Dr. Louise Mirrer. Diamonstein-Spielvogel, best known for her work on historical preservation, has served on the boards of the United States Holocaust Museum, United States Commission of Fine Arts, and American Battle Monuments Commission. Her papers, which she contributed to the Institute, “really tell the unique story of how it became possible to think of a balance between preservation and the dynamism of the city” that is always changing, noted Mirrer. In addition to her papers, Diamonstein-Spielvogel contributed philanthropically to support the institute.

There are three major components planned for the Institute, Mirrer explained. The first is an annual conference covering relevant areas of New York history, politics, and social movements. The Institute is currently planning the first conference, scheduled to take place two years from now, around the 60th anniversary of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The second is to have research fellows supported by the Institute, on both a resident and short-term basis, who can dive into areas of interest to the Institute. The third is an archive of items relevant to the Institute. “What's particularly interesting and different is the focus on community activism, which is something that we’re very interested at New-York Historical, but has not been as much of a focus as it will now be,” Mirrer said.

The concentration will largely be on materials from 20th- and 21st-century movements. Although New-York Historical has collected items from those movements in the past, its 18th- and 19th-century archives are more robust. “This is going to expand our collecting,” Mirrer noted. It entails [acquiring] archives that many other institutions, like us, don't collect.”

The archive will offer new resources for scholars and researchers. Mirrer calls it a game changer since it presents “an opportunity to really understand how this happens, and why these movements have been so effective.”

Sheryl Jaeger, owner of the online antiquarian shop Eclectibles, which specializes in ephemera, said about the Institute, “I believe community activism is a very important part of our social and cultural history, and [the Institute] will be an excellent tool not only to build awareness while learning from our past but to help frame peoples’ thoughts for the future.”

The new archive already holds materials from the development of the High Line, a disused elevated rail structure in Manhattan that community activists led the drive to repurpose into an extremely popular park. Janelle Grace, High Line public relations and communications manager, noted that part of the collection includes the legal papers of real estate lawyer David Alan Richards, who oversaw the 2005 and 2012 donations of the High Line property to the city of New York, from a previous donation to New-York Historical.

“It's an honor to have items from the High Line’s history become a part of the archives of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Institute,” said Robert Hammond, cofounder and executive director of the High Line. “As the history of the High Line reflects the diversity and innovation of New York City, it’s a critical effort to have these materials preserved and accessible to scholars and New Yorkers alike.”

In addition, items previously collected by New-York Historical, such as materials from Occupy Wall Street, will be incorporated into the archive, according to a press release. “We’ve been collecting all the posters and banners and things that other people might throw away that document what happened at that moment,” Mirrer said. While the archive is still being built, New-York Historical says it has items from the 2017 Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, and the gay rights movement stemming from Stonewall.

“What can non-books teach us about our history and ourselves? These items provide us with information and social tone seemingly too insignificant or of the moment to publish in a book,” Jaeger noted about collecting ephemera, “Collectively they can tell a far more complete and expanded story than a book.”

New-York Historical Society is currently collecting items for the archive, and talking to other cultural institutions across New York City about placing materials with the Institute. It will also be soliciting relevant materials from individuals, as well accepting donations in accordance with its collecting and acquisitions process.

The Institute is currently in the process of hiring an executive director, and has started developing an advisory board. Douglas Brinkley, Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University and New-York Historical's presidential historian will be on the developing board.

It is also identifying areas for fellowships, and is planning exhibitions related to items in the archive.

“I think many people don't really understand, if they're not researchers or scholars, the value of collecting papers of groups and individuals,” Mirrer concluded. “One real dividend of the Institute [is that] we will really be in a position to translate…the joy of combing through papers of individuals who’ve been consequential to movements.”

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