A ‘Mother’s Milk Love’ for the City’s History

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By David Gibbons

So what’s a medievalist with Ph.D. expertise in a mid-14th century civil war that brought the first bastard king to the throne of Spain by dint of propaganda doing running the New-York Historical Society?

The answer is she has a prodigious talent and infectious enthusiasm for drawing her audience in by weaving fascinating historical narratives. In other words, she’s a helluva storyteller.

Equal parts schmoozing fundraiser, museum curator, exhibition promoter, advocate for education and community booster, Louise Mirrer, in her eight years as president and CEO of the N-YHS, has presided over a remarkable renaissance, including a three-year renovation that reopened the institution, literally and figuratively, to the public last November.

“Quite a lot of my activities, including fundraising, are based on my abilities to tell a good story,” Mirrer said. “If I didn’t have an almost mother’s milk love for the history of the city and history in general—the really remarkable power it gives you to know things about the past—I just wouldn’t be able to make a case for supporting this institution. It’s New York’s first and oldest museum. But knowing that is just totally insufficient to engage people. The truth is they love a good story.”

After saying hello to Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass on the way in, visitors to the society’s landmark building at 77th Street and Central Park West are invited to view Mirrer’s brainchild, an inspiring 18-minute film that covers the 400-year history of the city in broad, bold strokes.

Mirrer, 59, is a fourth-generation New Yorker, born in Brooklyn Heights, brought up in Great Neck. “I come from a long line of people—certainly on my mother’s side—who have been very interested and involved in culture,” she said. She has fond memories of spending nearly every weekend in the city with her grandmother, Katherine Friedelbaum, who was a mainstay at the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs well into her eighties.

“In my generation, growing up in New York, there was nothing to do on Sundays because everything was closed—all the shops, the stores, the supermarkets. But the museums were open, and I have endless recollections of standing in line to go in,” she said.

While researching her Ph.D. thesis on city history, Mirrer’s mother introduced her to the historical society as a library; only later did she discover it was also a museum. The credential that most likely spurred its trustees to the hiring decision was Mirrer’s highly successful seven-year stint as provost of the CUNY system, where she was impressive at furthering the university’s mission of engaging as many New Yorkers as possible in higher education. She notes that more than half of CUNY’s students are immigrants or children of immigrants; so she was delighted to promote the telling of the American story, to make U.S. history a graduation requirement and to hire faculty to teach it.

Asked which historical figure she would most like to meet, Mirrer does not hesitate: “Alexander Hamilton, because he’s the quintessential New Yorker. He prefigures all those who would come here for the same reasons he did—penniless orphaned immigrants from places like the West Indies or Southern or Eastern Europe. He came here for education and for economic opportunity.” She proceeds to spin a tidy narrative of how they’d sit down at the Tontine Coffee Shop, an important early 19th-century hub near what is now the South Street Seaport, and discuss several issues of great concern to Hamilton, among them taxation and slavery, and in the process tells a good portion of Hamilton’s “amazing story.”

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