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Seaport Museum Artifacts Ship Out June 22, 2005
by Mark Rose

A unique archaeological collection left homeless in Manhattan heads to Albany.

The News. On June 6, the New York State Museum announced that it had reached an agreement to take on the 2-million artifact collection currently housed at the South Street Seaport Museum. The collection--including artifacts from the Dutch New Amsterdam, English colonial, and early American Republic periods--comes from excavations throughout New York City, especially Lower Manhattan, during the past two decades.

"This collection will now be under the umbrella of the University of the State of New York and its institutions--the State Museum, Library and Archives--which work together to document and preserve New York's history," said Robert M. Bennett, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, in a press release. The state museum's director Clifford Siegfried added that "This acquisition will complement the State Museum's own collection of over 500,000 artifacts obtained from urban excavations in Albany and make the Museum the primary source of archaeological materials for New Netherland."

Jeff Remling of the Seaport Museum told ARCHAEOLOGY that New York Unearthed will remain open--by appointment--to school and other groups for the foreseeable future. He said that the artifacts currently on display will remain so for now (the exhibits are scheduled to come down in the fall), and left open the possible inclusion of artifacts in future Seaport Museum exhibitions.

In Albany, the collection will be overseen by Charles Fisher, the museum's curator or historic archaeology. Although the collection's departure is a loss for New York City, its future home is certainly worthy of it. A large section of the collections area at the state museum has recently been rehabilitated and has state-of-the art storage facilities, which can be adjusted for temperature and humidity, and a new archaeology lab. In addition, the new housing will place the collection near other resources for the early history of New York. The State Archives has 12,000 pages of colonial Dutch governmental records dating from 1638 to 1670. The State Library's New Netherland project transcribes, translates, and publishes Dutch documents in New York repositories relating to the 17th-century colony of New Netherland. Early printed books, as well as family papers and land documents of influential Dutch colonists, are accessible to researchers through the Manuscripts and Special Collections unit of the Library. The State Museum also has the Colonial Albany Social History Project about the people of colonial Albany and their world. For more information about the New York State Museum, call (518) 474-5877 or visit the museum online at www.nysm.nysed.gov.

The Editorial. Although it is greatly reassuring to know that the Seaport Museum collection--2 million artifacts from excavations in Manhattan--is going to a good home in Albany, it is difficult to conclude that this is anything but another chapter in the ongoing divorce proceedings between New York City and its past. In 1999, the Giuliani administrations put the wraps on excavations around City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse that exposed numerous burials of early New Yorkers. Who were they? Were the burials of residents of an almshouse, built in 1736 on the site now occupied by City Hall, or of Revolutionary War soldiers, inmates from a nearby prison, or even outliers from the African Burial Ground? Politicians decided it was better that today's New Yorkers not know. The site was enclosed in a fence covered in green tarps and no public outreach efforts were made. You can read more about it in our online feature "Under City Hall Park."

That was narrow-minded. Archaeology is inherently interesting and here it could have been used both to draw New Yorkers together and to educate them about their city and what archaeologists do, yet this opportunity was ignored. Why? You'll have to ask those who gave the orders to seal the site off from view and told the archaeologists involved not to speak to the press.

A few years later saw the loss of another opportunity to bring New Yorkers together through the exhibition of the city's rich history. The city had paid $85 million to restore the historic Tweed Courthouse, which, under Giuliani, was intended to be the new home of the Museum of the City of New York. Following the devastation, emotionally and economically, of Lower Manhattan after September 11, this would have been brilliant--an affirmation of the importance of New York City's history to today's residents and a symbol of a commitment to the revitalization of Lower Manhattan. Instead, the Tweed Courthouse was designated by the new administration to be the home of the Board of Education--essentially off limits to the public. You can read more about it in our feature story "The House that Tweed Built."

And now we have the migration of the Seaport Museum collection upstream to Albany. You can read the background in our online features "No Money for Archaeology" and "Archaeology Sunk at Seaport Museum." Why did New York City not take steps to keep this collection here? Or make it an integral part of the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan? At the beginning of August 2004, ARCHAEOLOGY sent letters to ten New York politicians--city, state, and federal--asking what they intended to do in the face of the potential loss of the Seaport Museum collection. Only one response came to us. For the record, that was from Governor Pataki's office. It would, however, be unfair to blame the politicians alone. This is also a failure of institutions as well. And the media--which gave this crisis only the most cursory attention. And, yes, the citizens of New York City, who didn't fight to keep their past.

Mark Rose is executive editor/online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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