The oldest museum in New York is getting an upgrade.
The New-York Historical Society will be adding more than 70,000 square feet to its building — including space for the American L.G.B.T.Q.+ Museum, the first museum dedicated to L.G.B.T.Q. history and culture in the city.
For decades, local activists have talked about the need for a museum to document the history of the queer movement, said Richard Burns, the museum’s board chair.
“Suddenly we’ve reached this moment, a tipping point where more and more people are saying, ‘We better record this history, integrate it and celebrate it before we lose it,’” Burns said. “And so, in 2017, in January, a group of us got together in a living room and began having this conversation.”
A group of L.G.B.T.Q. leaders — they would eventually become the museum’s board of directors — began to raise money for the institution. In 2018, they interviewed eight museum-planning firms. A year later, they got their museum charter from the New York State Board of Regents.
Together, the museum and outside firms conducted focus groups in English and Spanish in all five boroughs. They also surveyed about 40,000 L.G.B.T.Q. people living across the country.
We don’t need museums about “Will & Grace” and Ellen DeGeneres, Burns said. “Those stories are told in popular culture. We need a museum that tells the untold stories of regular lived lives, activists’ lives, lives that were lost in queer New York and queer America.”
But the L.G.B.T.Q. museum space — which will occupy the entirety of the expansion’s top floor — is just a piece of the five-story addition to the Historical Society. The institution, housed in a granite building on Central Park West, purchased a 10,000-square-foot vacant lot to its west in 1937 for the purposes of expansion. Now the time has finally come.
The move will also drastically extend classrooms for the Academy for American Democracy program, a history and civics education initiative that, with the expansion, will become available to about 30,000 sixth-grade public school students around the city.
“We offer the program online, but we always anticipated giving students the opportunity to be in a public square or a Roman forum or Greek agora,” said Louise Mirrer, the Historical Society president and C.E.O. “And this new building will give us the opportunity.”
On Wednesday morning, the Historical Society learned that it would be receiving $35 million in funding from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council — which puts it on track for projected completion around 2024.
When the Historical Society does open its new and improved doors, materials at the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library — which include rare copies of the country’s founding documents — will become more accessible to visitors through state-of-the-art compact storage. And new galleries will host graduate students from the Society’s Master of Arts in Museum Studies program, intended to diversify the museum profession.
The Historical Society aims to tell history — both New York and American — in all of its complexity. For Mirrer, expanding the range stories is deeply important. “To be welcoming to a new audience is really wonderful, especially for an institution founded in 1804.”