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Donald Trump and the Uses of the Past

New York’s oldest museum is safeguarding the Post-it protests against the president. But what good is history in an era that disdains it?

Andrew Lichtenstein/ Corbis/ Getty Images

The New-York Historical Society’s chief conservator wore a slate-blue workman’s-style jacket. Somebody had hemmed the jacket’s cuffs up extremely carefully, which gave Alan Balicki the practical air of a man who cannot have his sleeves trailing across his work. These sleeves also said that this is a man whose life is defined by care: for the archive, for the past, for the future.

I visited the New-York Historical Society with a gaggle of other new PhDs trying to think of what to do now that there are no jobs at universities. Our group goes in search of places where people see the humanities as a site of devotion. Nobody gets to be a professor anymore, but there are still many people who think the way that professors do. Like soldiers out of wartime, we feel full of duty and useless.

Guiding us through the skinny corridors of the museum, Balicki showed us cabinets he designed himself to hold various paper materials from America’s history. They each had very beautiful handles. For architectural drawings, large plastic rolls held medium-sized plastic rolls that held small plastic rolls, each holding paper. For Audubon’s 450 original studies of American birds, Balicki had designed big flat drawers. Best of all was a refrigerated cabinet containing reels of cellulose nitrate film.

Cellulose nitrate film spontaneously combusts. Not only that, but it produces its own oxygen as it burns. Even if you submerge the reel underwater, it still burns. The New-York Historical Society keeps several reels of such film in Balicki’s cabinet, which is stuck all over with red paper decorations. They once had an ice cream party here, Balicki said, and he kept the Chinatown decorations for luck. An unexplained incident had already claimed one reel.

Balicki’s job is to rescue objects and to safeguard them against future assaults. Founded in 1804, the New-York Historical Society is the oldest museum in New York. The hyphen in its name is a vestige of a time when “New York” had a hyphen in it. (The museum’s summer softball team is called The Hyphens.) Its collection is enormous—over 1.6 million works of art.

What relevance does such an archive have nowadays? They say that if you’re asked why you like history in a university interview, the only thing you should never say is because we can learn from the mistakes of the past. History is a methodology, a way of seeing things—not a cautionary tale.

But we seem to be living through a rupture. As the president pretends the traditional separation of the judiciary, executive, and legislative branches of government does not exist, the most basic lessons from history—by which I mean literal history lessons we all should have learned at primary school—seem to need re-teaching. The New-York Historical Society has a very vibrant education program, and gears much of its exhibitions towards schoolchildren. It also recently ran an exhibition on the presidency, so that visitors could see for themselves the historical premises behind the office.

Our country also has subtler needs. When Donald Trump was elected, an artist named Matthew Chavez began a project in the Union Square subway underpass. He sat at a desk covered in colorful sticky notes and pens and invited travelers to write down their feelings and then stick them on the wall. Chavez discouraged his contributors from expressions of raw anger, and encouraged messages of love and solidarity. He called the project Subway Therapy.

Alan Balicki and his team had one and a half hours on January 23 to take the project down from the wall, after the Society partnered with Chavez, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority to place part of the work in its archive. Somewhat sadly, Balicki explained that he made the decision to break the original sequence of notes—he just did not have time to preserve them as they were. One of the PhDs with us observed that nobody owned the sequence or had declared that there was a wrong or right way to arrange the notes. She thought the project was beautiful as is, lumped pell-mell into gray archival boxes. The new display is called Messages for the President-Elect.

Alan Balicki with “Messages for the President-Elect.”

Some years ago, Balicki also put into the archive a rack of clothing from Chelsea Jeans that had been blasted in 9/11 and preserved by the owner as a kind of impromptu memorial.

This is the sort of thing that the New-York Historical Society saves: flotsam, jetsam, things left behind. The curators follow closely in the wake of the city’s human activity, collecting the materials left behind by protests and vigils and attacks. The museum treats these items with a reverence rarely seen in any part of our culture. The archive turns objects into art the same way that a devoted servant might turn everything the king has touched into treasure.

A basic appreciation for the American state’s machinery is threadbare among those with the greatest power in this country, as well as the broader electorate. Not even the secretary of education believes in equal access to schools for the nation’s children. What does the past mean for a society like this, under a government like this? For this administration, American history functions as a backdrop for racist fantasy—the greatness that will be made again—not as a foundation of government.

In such anti-historical moments it can be difficult to see why Alan Balicki’s passion is important. He and his staff pour their labor each day into a delicate life support system dedicated to holding the material past in stasis. Conservators do not evangelize for change, nor do they really even have conversations with the objects they so tenderly care for. Things are as they are, for such workers, and long may they stay that way.

America is suffering a crisis of belief, and the opposition has to face up to a new nihilism at the heart of things. Old gods governing taboos and traditions are dead—it is no longer forbidden to express racist thoughts frankly and crudely. Shame seems to have gone out of style, and historical thinking with it.

It’s tough to deal with nihilism, because everything multiplied by zero makes zero. But conservation is an action that expresses tenderness toward and assigns value to things that otherwise would signify nothing; a Post-it note, a grubby old letter, a drawing. Conservators treat the material world with a deeply erudite form of respect, which is their profession. It’s an honorable way to relate to the physical world around us. Honor has a politics.

I could not take my eyes off Balicki’s cuffs. They seemed to have been fabricated with love, perhaps by a person who cared for the jacket’s wearer. Later, turning over the day’s events in my mind, I ended up emailing Balicki to ask who had hemmed them. To my total delight, he emailed back: “My pal Viv, as in Westwood.” Call it honor, or conservation, or respect, or art: Reverence poured into an object shines right back out of it, and that light gets into the world.