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History's Storyteller

Richard Rabinowitz, the 63-year-old curator of the acclaimed 2005 exhibit Slavery in New York, can easily summon the most obscure detail about the Marquis de Lafayette, the subject of his current show at the New York Historical Society. But whether this Brooklyn native is conversing over scotch-on-the-rocks at his Park Slope brownstone, or charming museum administrators in a boardroom, it’s apparent that he much prefers the storytelling of history to lecturing on its particulars.

In French Founding Father: Lafayette’s Return to Washington’s America, which runs until August 10, patrons are told of the story of the young French nobleman so entranced by the American Revolution that he defied his king, sailed overseas, and fought beside George Washington. Rabinowitz cares little whether you remember that Lafayette returned to France in 1779, or the particulars of his life for the next 45 years, or that upon finally returning to the United States in 1824 he visited all of the then 24 states.

He does care, however, that you grasp the significance of Lafayette’s return, the war hero’s welcome that he received, the awe Americans felt in the physical presence of a hero, and the way his visit shaped our expressions of patriotism to this day. Hence the delight Rabinowitz felt, while researching the exhibit, when he unearthed old Portland newspapers published prior to the Frenchman’s stop in Maine. A prominent advertisement promised a huge exhibition of bears to honor him.

“I’m trying to impress upon people that something special happens when Lafayette comes to town, so we’re not going to emphasize that they cheer him, or bring out the war veterans, or wear little Lafayette cockades on their hats,” Rabinowitz says. “We’re going to show people that they bring all the bears out! Isn’t that perfect? You’re never going to forget that.”

A gray-haired man with square-framed glasses and engaged eyes, Rabinowitz’s most famous curation told the story of how enslaved African labor built New York City. Tens of thousands visited Slavery in New York, breaking attendance records at the New York Historical Society. His follow-up exhibit, New York Divided, exposed the ties between Southern plantation owners and Manhattan money-men, garnering rave reviews.

The Historical Society, thrilled by the success of those shows, contracted Rabinowitz to curate the Lafayette exhibition and three future exhibits: on Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee opening October 17; on Abraham Lincoln in New York, scheduled for Fall 2009; and on the Haitian Revolution scheduled for 2011. Perhaps more than anyone else, Rabinowitz will shape the way New Yorkers see their past for the foreseeable future.

Rabinowitz grew up in East New York, a community of second-generation Jewish immigrants on the southeast edge of Brooklyn. His father, 93, worked as a shipyard electrician, and later sold toothpaste, notebooks, and pens to bodegas and small groceries. His mother, 91, emigrated from Poland when she was 12 years old, worked in the garment shops, and later helped run the family supply business. She possesses an extraordinary sense of herself in history, Rabinowitz says, as on the afternoon he asked about her life story and she rolled up her sleeve, showing eight separate scars from eight different smallpox shots.

“I was born in 1916,” she said, “and every army that came into our shtetl vaccinated the whole population.” It’s this kind of detail that Rabinowitz labors to unearth when researching an exhibit.

In the 10th grade, Rabinowitz began attending Stuyvesant High School, where gifted New York City teenagers were sent. He took the subway to Manhattan each day, found a circle of like-minded kids, and spent three or four nights a week at the theater, or standing so they could watch performances of the Metropolitan Opera. Around the same time Rabinowitz spent a summer at a boy’s camp in upstate New York where he produced stage plays and returned in subsequent summers as the drama counselor. “I was never an actor, always a director,” he says. “The style of my mind really focuses on how people move through space.”

As a high school senior Rabinowitz got a scholarship offer to Harvard and felt unable to turn it down. He soon thought he’d made a mistake. “If I’d had the chutzpah I’d have stayed in New York, gone to work as a stage manager, tried to sleep with a lot of different kinds of women,” he says. Instead he completed his degree and enrolled in graduate school before discovering his vocation.

In January 22, 1967, a 21-year-old Rabinowitz decided to drive to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, the town-sized history museum that renders New England life during the early 19th century. It was closed when Rabinowitz arrived, and he spent the frosty night brooding in a nearby hotel.

As he toured the mock village the next day, he had an epiphany.

“I’d been studying the sermons of Jonathan Edwards as words on a page, and I suddenly realized that they were delivered in these cavernous meeting houses, among the scampering of cats and dogs and the chattering of unruly children,” Rabinowitz says. “I walked through the houses they’d set up and I could just feel someone moving a candle to cast light onto paper, or trying to dip their quill into an inkwell before it froze.”

He returned again the following day and secured a job for $1.10 an hour as a costumed interpreter of history. At 26, he became the museum’s director of education. “College professors are stuck with books, but at Sturbridge I could teach with mud and wind and light,” he says. “When kids wrote verse among the trees we’d have them set their own poems on a printing press. It was a miracle.”

After leaving Sturbridge, Rabinowitz returned to Harvard and finished his Ph.D. in American Studies. He taught briefly at Scripps College before returning to the museum world. Unsatisfied by freelance work, he and a friend wrote a prospectus for his own museum design firm, American History Workshop, in 1980.

It’s a career path he finds reckless in hindsight.

“Unlike my colleagues in academia, I found myself at age 50 or 55 without a pension to rely on or anything put away, but I just never allowed myself to believe that this business could fail,” he says. “This new arrangement at the New York Historical Society provides financial stability, which is nice, but it’s also exciting because it allows us to build a New York audience over several exhibits, and connect one story to another.”

I visited Rabinowitz last spring at his Park Slope brownstone, a book-filled home and business headquarters where he lives with his second wife, Lynda Kaplan, a partner in American History Workshop.

He spoke about preparing his four upcoming exhibits, work that has kept him as busy as he’s ever been. “It’s a tremendous amount of history to cover,” he said, although his subjects, Lafayette, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln in New York and the Haitian Revolution, “are in some sense connected by a common thread.”

His eyes glinted as though his mind spun the connective thread that moment. “When I watch the Green Bay Packers play, and see the cheese heads in the stands, I wonder if anyone knows why Wisconsin became dairy land,” he said.

He paused for a beat.

“It’s because when people settled in Kansas and Nebraska there wasn’t any building material, so they had to cut down trees in Wisconsin and Michigan and Minnesota. They sailed them through to Chicago—one of the biggest lumber ports for 100 years—to build their farm houses and barns. Afterward the land left behind was suddenly suited for something like dairy farms.”

He continued, “the world is filled with these interwoven stories. I didn’t invent the notion that an exhibit should have a story line, but I’m one of its most devoted practitioners. The Haitian Revolution led to the Louisiana Purchase. France kept the Louisiana Territory largely because they needed to grow food to supply what is now Haiti. Once they lost the island, Napoleon could sell off the territory, opening whole new frontiers to westward expansion. That intensified the conflict between free states and slave states that eventually precipitated the Civil War.”

As I pondered his monologue, from cheese heads to secession, I wondered whether my delight had more to do with the substance of his remarks, the engaging timbre he gave his voice, his comic’s timing, or the hand gestures that accentuated certain words at precisely the right moment. Try as I might to maintain critical perspective, I found myself under his spell, listening so intently to his words that I forgot to eat.

He often has this effect, I later discovered.

“He talks very quietly, everyone leans across the table to hear him and soon everyone is wrapped around his little finger,” says Anne Emerson, president of the Boston Museum Project, who regards Rabinowitz as the finest public historian in America and brings him before donors whenever possible. “My staff has a standing order to turn on a tape recorder whenever he speaks,” she says.

Rabinowitz cannot name a museum exhibit that inspires his work, though he’ll cite other influences. He recalls a church he visited in Venice, Italy, for example, where he saw a woman in a black shawl approaching the altarpiece. The scent of lit candles hung in the air, and the building’s architecture soared around her. She knelt before the altarpiece, captivated by the object and its surroundings.

“People should connect to an exhibit like that religious woman connected to the altarpiece,” Rabinowitz says, “which is something I can’t say to my clients or designers unless we’ve been drinking together and everyone has loosened up a bit.”

Even so, he is averse to the idea that the success of his exhibits is due to any magical quality he possesses—he credits long hours of research, painstaking attention to detail, and the work of his colleagues.

Still, Rabinowitz thinks he is the American History Workshop’s biggest radical. “Why should I be the young Turk at 62? When do I get a chance to be an old fart? I just think that every time we can do it altogether differently!” he says. “With age, I’ve become much more self-confident about raising difficult issues. I trust my instinct for what will really dislodge and reconfigure the visitor’s connection to a story. And that’s the kind of history I’m interested in doing.”


Conor Friedersdorf

Conor Friedersdorf is a freelance writer and an assistant editor at


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2008

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