April/May 2007 | Volume 58, Issue 2
Working on this, our twenty-first annual travel issue, reminded me that I am fortunate enough to have a most agreeable travel destination virtually under my feet. This is the Forbes Galleries in the company’s headquarters at 62 Fifth Avenue in New York City. I first visited them 20 years ago. News had come to our offices in midtown that Forbes had bought American Heritage. I remembered reading in the papers that our new owners had recently opened a museum. I went down to see it right away and emerged thinking: Boy, have we landed on our feet.
For the museum seemed to reflect what I thought—or hoped —was the spirit of American Heritage magazine. It still does.
Malcolm Forbes was, of course, a famous collector, and one of highly catholic tastes. When he decided to dedicate a museum to what he and his family had assembled, the result was both diverse and coherent. The coherence came from very canny design. The architect John Blatteau created the changing exhibition galleries that echo the building’s original lobby by Carrère and Hastings (authors of the New York Public Library and the Frick Collection), while the team of Purpura and Kisner took the remaining space of the building’s main floor and threaded it through with passages and display cases so cunningly laid out and ingeniously lit that the visitors get the sense of walking through a far larger place than they in fact are.
You enter past the flash and gleam of silver and gold reverse-painted glass panels rescued from the gorgeous French liner Normandie , which burned and ignominiously capsized beside a Hudson River pier while being converted to a troopship early in World War II. The maritime theme is continued by a fleet of toy boats. These are, the curators are careful to explain, not models . Models are highly literal; these are abstractions. Still, the dreadnoughts and cruisers, bulging with sponsons and bright with flags, give a clearer impression than any antique edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships can of what a 1910 battle squadron was all about. Under the protection of their guns are ocean liners and freighters and some wonderful live steam toys (most of the boats have spring-driven propellers) whose brass boilers, polished to a buttery sheen, glow above their hulls.
The ships give way to toy soldiers, beginning with “flats,” essentially two-dimensional silhouettes. But these metal wafers are carefully painted and full of life. They show Aztec warriors defending the Pyramid of the Sun at Tenochtitlán, and German tribesmen battling Gauls. One set is rather heartbreaking: I can’t look at it without feeling a pang of pity for the little boy, long gone to dust, who pulled open his Christmas present anticipating hussars or lancers or a bayonet charge, and instead discovered the entire hierarchy of the Lutheran Church. As the exhibit progresses, its soldiers take on three-dimensional heft and more complex duties. Toward the end, we see Wehrmacht troops of the 1930s—made out of composition material, their country of manufacture using metal for other purposes just then—working a field radio, lofting a carrier pigeon, paddling an inflatable raft. The figures are impressively realistic and from our vantage point, chilling in their busy, confident competence.
Then it’s on to memento mori: cases of awards, some amazingly elaborate (a lavish silver tray “Presented by William Bradburn, Wolverhampton, for the best 5 Acres of Swedes grown with Bradburn’s Manure, 1898”), all of them commemorating wholly forgotten events. Well, not quite all: a miniature scene shows a group of American soldiers of the 84th Infantry covering the Linnich-Lindern Road on the eve of Germany’s last great offensive of World War II; it was presented to Sgt. Malcolm Forbes of the 334th Regiment heavy-machine-gun section, who was badly wounded in the fighting that followed.
There’s much more, including a changing display of historic American documents, but the famous Fabergé eggs are gone. These fabulous baubles, given by Russian nobility to one another as Easter gifts, have returned to the land where they were made. They were a highly popular exhibit, perhaps the museum’s most popular. But I’d rather have seen them go than anything else in it. The toys, the trophies, the documents … together they convey to me the buzz of life with a warmth that Fabergé’s creations, for all their painstaking tiny magnificence, cannot.
It’s spring now, and chances are a lot of people reading this will be visiting Manhattan. Come see the museum. It’s at Twelfth Street and Fifth Avenue; it’s open from 10 to 4, Tuesdays through Saturdays; and it’s free.