175 years ago Princess Victoria was crowned Queen in London, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery, and Green-Wood Cemetery was founded amidst the farmland of Brooklyn. Considered “New York’s first sculpture garden” and a model for Manhattan’s Central Park, the cemetery attracted about 500,000 visitors a year in the mid-1800s. It continues to be a tourist destination today, offering trolley tours and even an app for mobile devices.
The Museum of the City of New York is presenting an exhibition on the art and history of Green-Wood. A Beautiful Way to Go: New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery also spotlights about 100 of the distinguished people buried there. The show hadn’t been on my radar, but last weekend a tourist insisted that I use his extra museum tickets (thank you, wherever you are!).
The distinctive installation has several creative features. The floor bears a design based on historic visitor maps of the cemetery (the Art Institute of Chicago also took to the floor recently, using Astro Turf in Fashion, Impressionism, Modernity). Clear, vertical exhibition cases suspend artifacts related to prominent people buried in the cemetery. The position of the cases relates to the map below, so that each marks the location of its corresponding grave. These see-through tombstones display personal belongings, work products, and other objects signifying the importance of each notable figure to us today: a sewing machine for the inventor of the sewing machine (Elias Howe, Jr.), a baseball bat for “the father of baseball” (Henry Chadwick), etc.
The freestanding cases are both the best and the worst element of the show. They offer 360-degree views of the heterogeneous mix of items on display, but the wires connecting them to the high ceiling are visually distracting. Practically, the wires deliver electricity. Conceptually, they are meant to help the cases evoke lanterns at twilight (an end-of-life euphemism). Personally, I’m reminded of the umbilical-like cords pervading the movie The Matrix.
In addition to the show’s famous 100, about 559,900 other people are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. Though they fall outside the scope of the exhibition, we can infer that they had money and/or family and/or friends to secure their place within the landscape’s beautiful 478 acres.
Unlike those at Green-Wood, the one-million people buried on Hart Island were unidentified or unclaimed at the time of their death. A 101-acre portion of the island has served as New York City’s public burial ground since 1869. Tax-funded burials, carried out by those serving prison sentences, provide a spot in a mass grave indicated with only a numbered cement marker. There are no scenic trolley tours here, though the site’s manager, the NYC Department of Correction, provides “limited access to an area set aside for reflection and facilitates visits by community groups and others seeking to honor the memory of those who are interred on the island.” Last Tuesday, the New York Times published an article about recent efforts to identify and recognize the people buried there.
What might an exhibition devoted to the history and people of this place look like? There are few monuments, maps, or artifacts to showcase, but the site has inspired a number of artists, including Melinda Hunt, Jacob Riis, and Joel Sternfeld. Too bad the title A Beautiful Way to Go is already taken.
For photographs of Hart Island, click the artist names above or see: http://untappedcities.com/2013/07/22/abandoned-hart-island-new-york-citys-mass-burial-ground/