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Documentary Narratives

I went to the New York Historical Society to see an exhibition called "Drawn by New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and Drawings." The earliest drawings are the most fascinating as they document the Dutch settlement: the first Native Americans encountered, the coastline, the ships at anchor, the interior cabins on the ships, the slave markets, and more. Most--French, Dutch, English, Spanish--explorers were draftsmen as well as writers; learning to draw was considered part of a proper education for upper class men and women from the 16th through the 19th century (at least). Before photography, there was reliance on images as well as words to document daily life, important occasions, coastlines, weather, politics. We have lost the skill of visual narration. Perhaps it has been taken over by photography and film. Audubon's magnificent drawings of birds and wildlife, for example, are accompanied by journals and notebooks. Prints of these drawings and an anthology of his writing are both available in the Society bookstore, a good place to buy holiday gifts.

The historical society has a treasure trove of documents that they rotate on a regular basis for exhibition. They also have an excellent research library. I have used the library to research articles on Nelly Bly--the first American woman investigative reporter--and Daguerreotypes. The museum has a rich collection of them.

Just years ago this important New York institution was threatened with closure. Hopefully, this will not happen again.

"Drawn by New York" is on until January 7. The address of the NY Historical Society is 170 Central Park West at 77th Street. Check their website for hours over the holiday.
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