Program to Explore Origins of American Commerce, Culture, and Values at South Street Seaport Museum

January 14, 2009 at 4:47 pm Leave a comment

Exploring the beginnings of New York as a pluralistic seaport and crossroads of goods and cultures that continues to shape American character and identity, the South Street Seaport Museum will present New Amsterdam: The Island at the Center of the World in Fall 2009. The exhibition will be the centerpiece of a citywide celebration of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of New York’s harbor under the Dutch flag. The program will commemorate the founding of New Amsterdam by Dutch traders who planted the seed for enduring American characteristics, such as diversity, tolerance, and free trade.

New Amsterdam: Island at the Center of the World will offer insight into Manhattan’s fabled past as America’s greatest natural harbor. The Dutch established the harbor before the British took control of it in 1664, a period in New York’s history that has long been overlooked. Forward-thinking Dutch recognized the importance of New York as a gateway into the new world and played a significant role in the development of the port from a remote trading post into a global economic, cultural, and political center.

The exhibition will narrate the story of Manhattan’s beginnings with more than 50 rare maps, landscapes, broadsides, prints, portraits, and letters, illuminating 17th-century New York life. These artifacts will be accompanied by maps of important world cities of the era, allowing visitors to learn about the founding of New York in the context of international urban history and growing trade networks.

In addition, New Amsterdam: Island at the Center of the World will offer insight into the social structure of the Dutch Republic in the 1600s, and Amsterdam in particular, which was one of the most progressive and culturally diverse capitals of late-Renaissance Europe. The first Manhattanites brought with them the experience of religious freedom, openness towards foreigners, and other attitudes and know-how that shaped the character of the Dutch colony—and of New York and eventually the emerging nation.

“In revealing the story that underlies the making of America, this celebration of Dutch Manhattan gets to the heart of what this institution is about,” said Mary Pelzer, director of the South Street Seaport Museum. “Once the Dutch began to settle New York Harbor in the early 1600s, our city began to emerge as a fulcrum for global economic, social, and cultural exchange. Port commerce continues to direct the development of New York—and informs who we are as a nation.” The South Street Seaport Museum is a leader in the study of port culture and its impact on American character and identity.

Chairman of the South Street Seaport Museum Frank Sciame said, “The Seaport Museum is pleased to launch an exhibition that illustrates the role that the port of New York played in shaping American history. The port allowed New York to become the preeminent American city and the leader in world trade. This city’s and country’s origins will come to life in this groundbreaking exhibition.”

New Amsterdam: Island at the Center of the World will explore the connections among the multiple ethnicities that made up the Dutch colony and the relationship between Dutch settlers and the indigenous people of Manhattan. A highlight in the exhibition is the Pieter Schaghen letter of 1626, which includes the earliest surviving reference to the legendary purchase of Manhattan, known then as New Amsterdam. Schaghen, an administrator in the Dutch West India Company described the acquisition of 22,000 acres on the island of Manhattan for goods worth 60 Dutch guilders or $24 (a transaction that Native Lenapes understood as a land-use agreement). Schaghen’s report highlighted Manhattan’s role as a commercial center and provides a detailed list of the types and numbers of pelts that were shipped back to Amsterdam. The letter is owned by the Dutch National Archives, which is lending extensively to the exhibition.

New Amsterdam: Island at the Center of the World will be organized into three thematic sections. “The World” is dedicated to the work of 17th-century cartographer Johannes Vingboons, who drew hundreds of maps of cities and trading posts worldwide. The maps serve as a window into the competitive arena of global commerce in the 1600s, showing the settlements of Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch trading companies in places as far flung as Nova Scotia and Japan. Visitors will be able to trace the origins of the first generation of New Yorkers who traveled thousands of miles across the sea to work in, and ultimately settle, New Amsterdam, which quickly emerged as a 17th-century global trade hub.

The second thematic section, “The Island,” explores New Amsterdam’s coming-of age as an economic and cultural leader and the factors that drove its rapid growth. Highlights include rare maps, views, and plans of Manhattan Island from the 1660s. The third section focuses on the Schaghen letter and the story behind the Dutch purchase or lease of Manhattan.

Throughout the run of the exhibition, the Museum will offer city-walks through Lower Manhattan that will explore the physical and cultural remnants of the early Dutch settlement. An audio guide will be narrated by Russell Shorto, the acclaimed author of The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America. Shorto’s book brings to light centuries-old, but only recently translated documents from the Dutch National Archives that paint a history of Manhattan that is radically different from the accounts written by the English after they conquered New Amsterdam and renamed it New York. Other public programs organized in conjunction with the exhibition include a series of lectures about New York’s origins as a Dutch trading post and the continued influence of Dutch intellectual, cultural, and urban history on the cultural life of New York.

New Amsterdam: Island at the Center of the World is organized by the South Street Seaport Museum in partnership with the Dutch National Archives in The Hague and the Center for International Heritage Activities. It is curated by Martine Gosselink.


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