If you've ever wandered around Williamsburg, you've probably walked past the City Reliquary, a tiny storefront on Metropolitan Avenue filled from floor to ceiling with ephemera, curios, and found objects with bits of NYC history etched into them. The Reliquary is technically a not-for-profit community museum, but it feels more like a time machine, a place filled with quirky remnants of the city's past—exhibits have included a collection of vintage Williamsburg Bridge postcards and a reconstruction of a Staten Island grotto. Not everything is about the days of yore: the museum is currently showcasing a man who obsessively documents his pizza-eating travels across the city. We spoke to Reliquary founder Dave Herman about where he finds his objects and the Led Zeppelin/bourbon/pie party the museum is hosting this weekend.
How was City Reliquary born? In 2000, I moved into a ground floor apartment on the corner of Grand and Havemeyer Streets. I immediately saw the potential in the sidewalk level windows and discussed some options with my then roommate. It wasn't until 2002 that we were able to come up with a living situation inside the apartment at would accommodate using the windows as public display cases. But, this timing was perfect. During these two years, I noticed rapid changes in our section of the neighborhood. I was constantly stopped and asked for directions or advice. And certainly, the social climate of the entire city endured a major change in 2001.
These things (along with a job driving trucks cross-country, stopping at small museums and roadside attractions along the way) inspired a tribute to New York City that was informative for passersby, sentimental for longtime residents, and inclusive to recent transplants. This, all in the name of "civic nobility"...the sense of belonging to a grand municipality. Soon after establishing the window display, several like-minded individuals became involved in order to establish a not-for-profit organization and eventually a full-fledged museum with storefront location on Metropolitan Avenue.
What spurred your interest in obscure objects? Obscurity is usually intriguing. A small, never-before-seen object can tell an elaborate story. Placed under a pane of glass or behind a velvet rope, an obscure object can hold the power to evoke a sense of intrigue that many text books never achieve. But, some things become obscure just because people have lost interest in them. Often, items that were once very mundane fall into obscurity. This is what interests me the most. At the City Reliquary Museum, we've found some of the objects that were once the most commonplace have become the most favorite of items on display. For instance, subway tokens. Less than 15 years ago, the pockets of every New Yorker were filled with tokens. They were a way of life that quickly became an oddity. Visitors to our museum use their knowledge of this once-mundane-obscure object as a marker of their time in New York, thus boasting of their longevity as a New Yorker.
What makes City Reliquary different from other NYC history museums? The City Reliquary Museum tells a relatable story of and by New Yorkers. We highlight items that the people can relate to and identify with. Some of our artifacts are rare and priceless, but others can be found walking down the street. Both are treated with equal respect because of their ability to retain and retell local history. Many items on display in our museum came from members of the community and tell the stories of a city which changes at lightning speed. We help people see that they can take control of the environment changing around them by taking notice of (and possibly recording) history in the everyday.
Where do you find your objects? What are some of your favorite areas search for things to add to the Reliquary's collection? A lot of our object come from our visitors. Those are my favorites. They come with a personal story. Sometimes people will say, they've had this railroad spike, paint chip, or what-have-you for 20 or more years sitting on their mantle not knowing what to do with it. Then, they walked into our museum and knew this is where it belonged. Other items come from flea markets, stoop sales and sidewalks. Our president, Bill Scanga is an expert artifact finder on garbage nights in the city, and also boasts a golden star for his Ebay research and procurements.
What have been some of your favorite exhibits? Favorite materials you've found? We have relocated a newsstand that once stood at the corner of Canal Street and the Bowery for more than 30 years into our museum. "Petrella's Point," as the stand was labeled by it's owner Adam Petrella, was one of the unsung landmarks of New York City and inspired the original City Reliquary windows. New York continues to reinvent itself as a more homogenized city, appealing to a new audience of visitors and transplants who seem to feel more welcome in a familiar, sterile urban environment. Unique treasures such as the newsstands personalized by their operators once dotted the landscape with the true creativity and personality of the city's inhabitants. Now, sadly, these landmarks are being replaced by uniform structures which fit into the vision of a select few people with the privilege and authority change our landscape. Petrella's Point was pushed out of the streetscape but lives on inside our museum.
Any special events or exhibits coming up that sound particularly exciting? The Reliquary is hosting a "Major LedZep/Bourbon/Pie" party this Friday, Aug 26, which will see a pie contest, Rock and Roll Parking Lot doc screening, a DJ spinning Led Zep covers, alternates, B-sides, classics and variations, a multi-media projection of Led Zep concert footage and films, beer and Buffalo Trace Bourbon—what better way to celebrate / mourn the closing days of summer?!