Time Capsule Opened, 1950 Remembered

370 Jay Street time capsule

This morning, a time capsule at 370 Jay Street that was sealed in 1950 was opened before a small crowd of relevant officials, local journalists, and construction personnel. The occasion was the repurposing of 370 Jay Street as a “global center for science, technology, and education,” owned and operated by NYU. The contents of the capsule will be on display at the New York Transit Museum early next year. When Urban Outfitters sells vinyl and replica vintage cameras, clothing stores are decorated with Singer sewing machines, and a typewriter is an essential accent piece in any well-appointed Instagram feed, a time capsule is almost too meta—the idea of a time capsule is a sort of notional time capsule, a way of thinking about the future that feels like a relic from the Space Race.

Opening the ceremony, representatives from the Transit Museum, the MTA, and NYU shared their hopes for the contents of the time capsule, and spoke of the historic weight of the past. MTA President Carmen Bianco joked that he hoped there might be funding in the capsule, which got a laugh, and expressed excitement at seeing “what history has left for us.” (The capsule was known to contain microfilm related to the building’s construction, but whether it held anything else was not certain.) It’s like archaeology, but without the searching or the mystery.

The weird theater of time capsule openings is similar to the one enacted by the teenager on Christmas who pretends not to know his parents wrapped up something he picked out two months earlier. We, the progeny, unearth the gifts of previous generations with theatrical curiosity, then when ceremonially place them in a different capsule—a museum vitrine this time, displaying for future generations the items that past generations received from other, more-past generations.

When the speeches ended and it came time to retrieve the capsule, there was a loud cranking noise, and all the photographers crowded around tiny area under some scaffolding. The local journalists with camera phones hung back, waiting for the big reveal. This took about twenty minutes. An older woman walked by and asked me what was going on. I told her they were opening a time capsule, and she said “Oh! A time capsule!” but wandered off before it made it out of the ground. Several people noticed the mild commotion and came over to ask, “Hey, who’s over there?” as if a famous person would be standing still in a cluster of photographers while everyone else stood around looking bored. “It’s a time capsule,” I said, and most of them said, “Oh,” and kept moving.

The cluster of photogs shifted slightly, over in front of a small information booth with a conservator and a photographer inside. It had begun to rain. There was a hammering noise for a few moments, then a voice came on the microphone to announce the findings: a 1950 nickel, newspapers, and a box expected to contain the microfilm. Even the phantom voice sounded disappointed by what history had left for us. The time capsule was passed to a conservator and the crowd dispersed, taking with them only the question: How much is a 1950 nickel worth?

Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.

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