Finally got to see the “Beer Here: Brewing New York’s History” exhibit at the New York Historical Society – on its last day.
This exhibit, which opened on May 25, was described on the museum’s web site as a survey “of the social, economic, political, and technological history of the production and consumption of beer, ale, and porter in the city from the 17th century to the present.”
If you didn’t make it, you didn’t miss much. Unless, of course, you didn’t know a thing about beer.
IMHO this was an overhyped, overpriced fundraiser for the New York Historical Society. The cost of admission, $15, covered the entire four-floor museum, but if you chose to tour only the one gallery with the beer exhibit, you would have been done in under a hour, assuming you didn’t stop in the “beer hall” at the exhibit’s end for a plastic cup of some locally brewed suds for $8 – $10 with a bowl of pretzel nuggets. Thanks, no, I’ve had my beer money taken at the admissions desk.
The exhibit, which filled one gallery at the historical society, was composed largely of words and photographs. If I wanted to read about beer, I’d buy a book! One could argue, of course, that the narratives were necessary to bring it all together.
I’d spent a great deal of time squinting to read notes accompanying the various displays, which included artifacts and documents such as shippers’ ledgers showing the transported beer (ho hum), brewer’s recipes, reproductions of brewer’s ads from newspapers four centuries ago and also a half century ago, collections of old bottles, mugs and ice and hop harvesting tools and local breweriana of perhaps a century ago, or newer.
Also, there were photos and posters of breweries and architect’s plans for breweries long gone, among them the Ehret’s Hell Gate Brewery in Yorkville. Not a mention, however, of the brewer’s row of mausoleums at Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery.
You could read about pasteurization and the invention of the Crown cap and, yes, view an old beer-capping machine (one previewer called this “impressive”). You could read about the invention of steel cans and see a few examples on display. You’d also have seen displays of temperance movement advertisements and newspaper ads for and against Prohibition as well as labels for so-called near beer sold during Prohibition.
Video? A silent movie showed beer being made at the Genesee Brewery — in upstate Rochester — following the end of prohibition.
Audio? You could listen to circa 1960 radio commercials for Schaefer and Rheingold over tiny, tinny speakers barely audible over the gallery’s din.
Fashion? The show displayed the dress worn by the 1956 Miss Rheingold, Hillie Merritt.
Still, I learned few new things. Hops once were a major crop in New York State. Long Island’s pristine water was important to Brooklyn’s breweries. A malting plant once stood at the site of the United Nations and that a Bushwick brewer, William Ulmer, built an amusement park in 1880s in Brooklyn’s Gravesend neighborhood.
It’s a shame some brewer couldn’t finance a more Disneyesque, exciting show. Overall, this was a low-budget attempt to make hay of the current craft-beer-appreciation phenomenon. But you’ve got to hand to the exhibit’s organizers. They suckered me in. Did they get you, too?