Inspiring Views

by Katherine Johnson

interior shot of Empire State Building

Interior artwork at the Empire State Building. Photo by vagueonthehow

I was recently on a trip to New York City and of course, we had to tour the Empire State Building.  If you have not yet been there, I will describe the environment for you.  As you might imagine, certain times of the year are very busy and the lines can get very long, much like DisneyWorld. To keep the visitors entertained, the staff has created a history museum about this landmark that you read as you snake around the velvet ropes awaiting your turn for an elevator to the higher floors, which during peak hours can be a very long time.

Why is this pertinent? Well, with my professional hat on, I stood amazed at the amount of material that had been preserved on the planning, designing, and building of this amazing structure.  Reproduced for the public’s viewing are design documents, correspondence, newspaper clippings, and photographs.  Artifacts and recorded interviews also tell some of the story.  During the construction a log was kept detailing the exact work done and amount of materials used each day.  The work on the building was well documented in photographs and there was a great deal of press coverage before, during, and after the construction. Even my husband, who is not always gung-ho on museums, was thrilled with the images and information provided about the actual building process. Since the goal was to build the tallest building in the world (which it was from 1931-1967) one can understand the mission to record every detail for posterity.  But someone had to have the foresight and the determination to properly preserve all of these materials (storing them properly and organizing them for future use). This can be a costly endeavor.

After that, someone with a creative design sense had to work with the archivist or curator to create the exhibit and determine what to use in it.  I do not possess that creative streak so exhibits that are well done always astound me.  But, as an archivist and curator I do have insight into the work and the funding that must have gone into the preservation of the records of this immense construction project from the 1930s.  Too many of these types of endeavors have no such written records to illustrate the background and day-to-day work that went into them. If the Empire State Building had been destroyed by terrorists, natural disaster or just due to age and we had no written or photographic history of it, the knowledge about it as well as some images of it would disappear after one generation.  Although this is a structure and many may say “so what” to the preservation of its records, its importance to our culture can be demonstrated by 4 million people who visit there each year and the fact that it was voted America’s favorite architecture in a poll by the American Institute of Architects in 2007.

The Empire State Building still stands, no longer the tallest structure in the country but definitely etched into our cultural heritage, and has become a tourist attraction as well as continuing to be an office building for many businesses housing thousands of workers.  People from around the world flock to it and although some may not pay much attention to the historical detail, there are many who crave learning about such places in depth.    

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