The word “cemetery” conjures images of gloomy gravestones and a sense of dread in the American imagination, but it wasn’t always this way. Nearly two centuries ago, civic leaders in New York established Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, providing not only a hallowed place to bury loved and well-respected residents, but an airy, open green space that provided a retreat from the chaos of the city.
This summer, the Museum of the City of New York is featuring an exhibit to commemorate the 175th anniversary of this outdoor community space that predated both Central Park and Prospect Park, titled “A Beautiful Way to Go.” The exhibit will interweave art, architecture, and landscape with social and cultural history, and will also feature contemporary photos of the cemetery in all four seasons by photographer Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao.
Donald Albrecht, the curator of architecture and design at the museum, says that the exhibit is based around changing notions of death and nature. “Nature used to be this scary thing, and then it became a beautiful, bucolic thing. It was romanticized,” he says of the way 19th-century Americans viewed the outdoors.
The exhibit will also feature relics from the historic heyday of Green-Wood Cemetery. In the 1850s, 500,000 people visited on any given year when the population of New York was only 1 million. Visitors could use illustrated guidebooks and maps of monuments to navigate the cemetery, and souvenirs and keepsakes were produced to meet demand.
“Images of Green-Wood were very popular,” says Albrecht. “People bought prints and clocks, and we have those in the exhibit.”
Richard Moylan, president of the Green-Wood Cemetery historic site, is hopeful that the exhibit will help bring recognition to the cemetery and draw in a new audience.
“I think people will be really surprised,” he says of the richness and depth to be found in Green-Wood’s history. Conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein is buried there, as well as iconic New Yorkers such as F.A.O. Schwartz, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and victims and survivors of the Titanic.
He continues, “There’s a story behind every stone, and that’s something we take very seriously."