The City Reliquary: The City’s Museum


MAJOR HISTORY AND GREAT ARTare easily resolvable into narrative, and one of the joys of living in New York City is the ease with which you can explore those post hoc chronicles. You don’t even need the Met or the MoMA to guide you: The past, in all its grandeur and all its mundanity, is never far from the surface here. It’s often said that the city is a palimpsest, its innumerable bygone narratives concealed in its streets and parks and buildings, in its sub rosa lives and discarded ephemera. The ever-present awareness that all around you are teeming layers of reality, undisclosed and unexplored, is another of the great joys of living here.

The City Reliquary, a non-profit “community museum,” strives to tell one history of New York through outmoded artifacts, personal object collections, and everyday items. “We like the ephemeral, lesser-known stuff that’s not gonna be in the Museum of the City of New York,” says Bill Scanga, the Reliquary’s president. “We like to take this stuff and transform it by putting it on display and making it into a storytelling device.”

The City Reliquary began in 2002 in a ground-floor apartment window at the corner of Havemeyer and Grand. The window’s keeper, Dave Herman, founded the museum by assembling a menagerie of objects he’d collected around New York: Statue of Liberty figurines, subway tokens, a set of dentures found in Dead Horse Bay. Passersby could press a button to hear an audio tour.

In 2006, the museum moved into its current location and broadened its collection of curios by turning to the community. There are subway handles from different epochs, hung like taxidermy; a shrine to Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers; a “very old shovel”; and a Geology of New York exhibit, with pieces of the Brooklyn Bridge, bricks from the aqueduct tunnels, and geological core samples. The community collection display currently hosts the artist Tracy Gilman’s collection of oil cans, while in another area, the rotating exhibition hall features an exhibit called “The Dick Power Story: A Dark Day in Sunnyside,” about a midcentury bicycle maker “whose obsession with racing bicycles led to consequences inspiring, but also dark.”

“None of this stuff is rare or unusual,” Scanga points out. “But I like to hope that the museum transforms your everyday experience of New York. We have these street cleaner bristles, little pieces of metal that fall off the street cleaners. They’re all over the streets, but once you see them behind glass, you start seeing them everywhere in the city. It makes it special, in a way. The Reliquary is about storytelling through objects, about transforming the city into a museum.”

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