Nov. 17 – A Message from Miriam Sicherman, Closet Archaeology Instructor!

Author, educator, and closet archaeologist Miriam Sicherman

I first visited City Reliquary during the Open House New York weekend in October 2016. I’d heard about this little museum many times, but had never made my way to Williamsburg to see it. As soon as I set foot through the turnstile I knew I had entered a space that I could relate to. From the seltzer bottles to the geological specimens to the pencil sharpeners, everything on exhibit showed an attention to how ordinary things, things that most of us take for granted or completely ignore, can actually be objects of fascination and of great value.

Installation view of the Closet Archaeology exhibit at the City Reliquary
Installation view of the Closet Archaeology exhibit at the City Reliquary

This mindset fit exactly with an unexpected project my elementary students had been working on for months. A curious kid, looking for old coins, had begun excavating lost items from underneath the floorboards of the student coat closet. When other kids joined in, it didn’t take long before a 1912 baseball card was found (Charles E. “Gabby” Street of the New York Americans, who became famous for catching a baseball dropped from the Washington Monument), not to mention an endless stream of candy wrappers from bygone brands, schoolwork, stamps, buttons, puzzle pieces, jewelry, bits of newspaper, and even cigarette boxes. These items swept us back to the life of our East Village neighborhood and its children over the course of more than a century. My students all caught the archaeological bug as we peered under the floorboards of more and more closets throughout our 1913 building. We loved finding, looking at, and researching these artifacts, from the cardboard caps of glass milk bottles to the scrawled 1950s spelling tests. And we wanted others to see them, too!

Obviously, the City Reliquary was a perfect place for an exhibit. I spoke with the person working at the front desk that day and the wheels began turning. Working together with me and my students, the Reliquary staff created a beautiful exhibit in the summer of 2017, artfully displaying these bits of detritus from generations of schoolchildren. My own students were thrilled to be taken seriously as junior archaeologists and couldn’t believe it when they learned that more than a thousand people had come to see their exhibit. The lives of schoolchildren past become real to us know through these objects in a way that the written word or even a photo could never approach.

Buttons, puzzle pieces, gum wrappers, and other items found by the closet archaeology students
Photo by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York

The items that the Reliquary exhibits with such care and reverence are exactly the ones we might not otherwise notice. Who cares about an old World’s Fair souvenir or a model of the Statue of Liberty? Well, actually, we all SHOULD care. These are the artifacts that teach us about our past, the past that we’re all a product of, even newcomers to New York. By bringing these objects out into the open and focusing our attention on them, the Reliquary gives us back the collective past of our daily life and situates us in history. We can find out what people of the past loved and tolerated and lived with. By extension, it gives us a fresh perspective on the ordinary objects of our own lives, which someday will be historical artifacts as well.

There is no place like the City Reliquary. By keeping it open, we keep the history of the people of the city of New York alive and visible and accessible to all.

Always civic,

Miriam Sicherman

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