The exhibit deftly wove together three themes that have emerged in my own life and journalism: peeling back layers of history, a connection with nature in urban areas, and information display.
Conceived and executed by Eric Sanderson at the Wildlife Conservation Society
, the premise of Mannahatta is to peel back New York's history layers to reveal the island as it was when Henry Hudson sailed into the estuary in 1609.
I toured the exhibit on a rainy Friday afternoon last October, on its very last day.
At the center of the exhibit hall was a three-dimensional model of Manhattan island. Projectors above displayed maps onto the model, showing where streams once ran, where the Lenape camped, and where the beavers lived. And when I walked back across the northern reaches of Central Park, I could see it.
Maybe it's just because I live in the uplands of Morningside Heights, but I think the key to the success of that map was its three-dimensionality. The Mannahatta web site hosts an interactive version
(more on that another time), but it's just not as evocative. On the model, I could imagine myself at the crest of Morningside Park, looking across open plains.
So many of our graphics are intended to be consumed on a flat surface. What becomes possible when we open up a third dimension? It's something I'm pondering.
Anyway. When I was at the museum, a tall man in a National Park Service uniform was taking measurements of the three-dimensional Mannahatta map, so I hold dear to the hope that it will resurface at some historic site someday soon.