07/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

New York: The Epic Origins

"1609, The Year the World Changed" declares the banner above the museum.

But help me... 1609? ...Let's see, as dates go, 1776...1812...1861... 1929... hop-scotching...1968? I certainly and sadly know those month-and day-only dates when in just moments we knew the world had changed: December 7, November 22, September 11; or dates easily recalled by alluring alliteration: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the 11th month.

...But 1609? It's a date too late to count fresh heads in the Henry XIII basket of martial woes... was it the year Galileo was expelled from science by the Pope in Rome?... had small pox resurfaced in London?...was Marie Antoinette in braids and with milk pails at le petite Trianon? Was it the year of the Sun King, the Lionhearted, the Conqueror -- anyone?


I look around the museum for another hint. O.k. here it is: "NY400." The New York 400 that smugly danced the night away in a Manhattan mansion ballroom? Nope. A car race through the five boroughs? Even possible? Nah.

Now I spot the giveaway: A captain, a ship, a river, a flag, a quest: Henry, Half-Moon, Hudson, Dutch, Northwest Passage.


1609 is the year the world changed! Of course, in New York it's always about us, what happened right here, clearly the center of the universe even 400 years ago! Residents and visitors love this attitude about New York--its part of our charm--and all will love these three exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York.


Illustrating the context of Henry Hudson's voyage up River (ultimately a fruitless attempt to find the fabled northwest passage to Asia), is "Amsterdam/New Amsterdam, The Worlds of Henry Hudson". This treasure trove exhibition with more than 275 rare objects from over 40 private and museum collections worldwide, is a marvelous kick-off to New York's Quadricentennial celebration of this historic year. The show includes the very clever transformation of the museum's central James Dinon & Elizabeth Miller Gallery into the exact dimensions of the interior shell of the Half Moon itself, empathizing the tiniest scale of this vessel in the vast landscape of the New World. Think of sailing a Sunfish in the shadow of the Palisades...

"Dutch Seen: New York Rediscovered" is an outstanding photography exhibition of contemporary Dutch photographers, including Hendrick Kerstens, whose work exclusively portrays his muse and daughter, Paola. Kerstens images capture a Vermeer-inspired Girl with a Pearl Earring painterly style that is both arresting and stunningly simple. Also notable is the uncanny work of Erwin Olaf, whose conceptual portraits of African-American families in elegant dress and in Victorian splendor, is entirely staged within his studio.


Last, "Mannahatta/Manhattan" is an exhibition capturing breath-taking computer-based simulation of the 1609 Manhattan Hudson, I'm sure both terrified and exhilarated, would have seen. There is a perverse pleasure in standing before these huge computer images of a fully forested Manhattan jungle-thick with vegetation, stone-quiet in Nature. Finally, no ambulance, no fire-engine, no beeping of a delivery truck in reverse. Of course, the most fascinating is the real topography of the island is detailed with shoreline, hills, inlets and streams, all teaming with life, and sustainable -- some thought -- for 1000 generations.